Fed’s $1.2 Million Stolen in Heist Drives Debut Thriller

When a heist goes wrong in Atlantic City, its mastermind calls on a ghostman, a specialist in dealing with loose ends.

He’s a world-class bank robber sometimes known as Jack Delton and the bloodless antihero of Roger Hobbs’s debut novel, “Ghostman,” a cool, tense thriller crackling with action.

The robbers had grabbed $1.2 million in Federal Reserve cash as it was being delivered to a casino, but then a sniper fouled their getaway, killing one and sending the other off radar.

Jack has to find the money, which comes with an embedded ink bomb and an explosive charge rigged to detonate in 48 hours once the cash is tampered with -- establishing a countdown that runs through the book.

But the bomb doesn’t just threaten to spoil the loot: It can also create a mess big enough to destroy a criminal career. Saying more than that would be spoiling the plot.

The casino theft and its volatile haul turns out to be part of a complex play between two drug kingpins. One is the mastermind, Marcus Hayes, to whom Jack owes an unpayable debt for screwing up a job in Kuala Lumpur. The other is a vicious piece of work called the Wolf, who controls much of Atlantic City’s criminal underworld.

Building Tension

Jack narrates his pursuit of the money in Atlantic City and flashbacks to Malaysia. Hobbs handles the dual stories smoothly, delaying revelations and building tension as he shifts from one to the other with cliffhangers between.

It’s the stateside action that dominates, with Jack pursued by the Wolf’s men, pressured by Marcus and occasionally tripped up by a sharp F.B.I. agent.

There’s a fair amount of publishing industry hoopla surrounding the book -- with movie and foreign rights sold, a big ad in the right place -- not least because Hobbs wrote it while at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

I grant the wunderkind high marks on pace and suspense, and exceptional skill in staging taut confrontational scenes. He also presents some seriously nasty violence. I’ll never feel the same about purple spray paint.

I’m not so high on the many times the action pauses to supply an excerpt from the Hobbs Criminal Wiki, mini-lectures on the facilitator, the getaway pack, the ink bomb, the wheelman, the scatter, the boxman and more.

Relevant but not neatly integrated, the material feels like the author’s tendering earnest bundles of bona fides. Maybe it’s just the student playing teacher.

Homer, Joyce

As for Jack, the voice is persuasive but the character largely presents little more than a James Bondish range of criminal skills and a reading list that extends to Homer and Joyce. (OK, he translates ancient Latin in his down time, but it’s also one thing he admits to not doing well.)

He has no friends, family or females, and offers just crumbs from his early life. He has good memories only of the woman who helped him become a better crook.

Hobbs may have been shooting for the allurement of enigma, but with a sequel in the works, as he has mentioned in an interview, he may want to work on fleshing out his ghostman.

“Ghostman” is published by Knopf (321 pages, $24.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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