Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Devil Is In The Details

Roger Hobbs
Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by Kemper
3.5 out of 5 stolen stars.

Summary: A professional thief who is a master of disguise tries to track down the missing loot from a robbery gone bad in Atlantic City.

The main character from Ghostman  makes some toast:

I went into the kitchen and put two pieces of sliced sourdough bread into the toaster.  You can use any type of bread to make toast, but I prefer sourdough. Other professional toast makers use whole grain or even raisin bread, but I like the taste and consistency of sourdough when toasted properly.  Only a fool or an amateur would use white Wonder Bread.

I was using a Proctor Silex 22605 Cool-Wall 2-Slice Toaster with white plastic sides and chrome top.  I put the bread in the slots and pressed down the handle which activated the contacts and applied power to the circuit board.  120 volts of power ran through the contacts to the nichrome wires at temperatures exceeding 300 degrees to toast the bread.   When the capacitor reached a certain voltage, it cut the power to the electromagnet inside and allowed  the spring to pop the toast up.  

If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to burn the bread, or not have it toasted enough, but I had practiced with the Proctor Silex enough to have the settings memorized. Some may use fancier toasters capable of holding four slices, and a real showboat might have one of those fancy bagel toasters.  The Proctor Silex had always gotten the job done for me.

So that’s the deal with this book.  You’re going to learn a whole lot of shit about every single piece of hardware or procedure involved. But since I’m a junkie for heist novels, I still liked it.

Jack is a ‘ghostman’, a professional armed robber who lives off the grid and is a master of disguise.  After a hit on the money delivery from an armored car to an Atlantic City casino goes horribly wrong, the guy who planned the job, Marcus, calls Jack in to track down the missing cash and heisters.  Jack ordinarily wouldn’t touch something this messy, but he owes Marcus a debt for a job that went sideways in Kuala Lumpur.  Besides, he’s bored.

There was a lot about this debut book from Roger Hobbs that I loved.  In the early chapters from the armored car robbery through our introduction to Jack, it seemed like we may be getting a new version of Parker for the digital age.  The action and pace are brisk, the plot makes for an original page turner filled with all kinds of underworld types, and the flashbacks to the botched job in Kuala Lumpur added another layer to it.

I especially liked that Jack was kind of a slippery character to the reader, too.  He shows himself capable of decisive and cold blooded action.  When he threatens others and boasts of a nature that seems to delight in bloodshed and misery to avoid boredom, you’re not entirely sure how much of that is true.  It makes him an enigma and that’s a nice way to handle a main guy when we don’t even know his real name.

However, what dragged this one down from 4 to 3 stars was that Roger Hobbs didn’t know when to just say, “I made some toast.” instead of elaborating on every detail like I spoofed at the beginning of this review. From the interview I read with Hobbs here on Goodreads, I get the feeling that he got so caught up with his research and invention of criminal procedures that he didn’t know when to stop.  So we get a whole lot of info-dumping.

For example, with every gun that makes an appearance in the story, we also learn the magazine capacity, caliber, muzzle velocity, etc. etc whether it gets fired or not.   I’d chalk that up as gun porn, but Hobbs does it with everything, not just guns.  So when Jack confronts a shotgun wielding thug, we get treated to a graphic description of the type of shells in the weapon and what they would do to a fleeing person.  (Which also begs the question how Jack would know what type of ammo was loaded into the gun without some kind of x-ray specs.  For all he knows, it could be rock salt or bird shot in there.)  Then minutes later he breaks down all the reasons why a shovel makes a terrible weapon.

When he provides details critical to the story, it’s fascinating.  The idea of booby trapped federal reserve money is great not just because it’s awesome Gee-Whiz tech, but because it’s critical to the story.  But Hobbs doesn’t discriminate.  At one point, Jack finds an apartment that has been broken into and the lock on the front door was splintered where it was pried open.  He notes that the police wouldn’t enter like that so he knows someone else was there, but then he goes on to detail all the ways that the police would access an apartment from getting a pass key to using a battering ram. Why? It has nothing to do with the story. All he had to say was that the police don’t break into places like that.  We didn’t need a laundry list of how they would do it if necessary.

I probably got more hung up on these details than I should have because I was so interested in the main story that I resented deviations from it.  Still, I hope that Hobbs continues to refine what he did here and delivers some more crime novels in the future because he’s got a lot of very cool ideas and a helluva readable style.  He just needs to learn not to tell us everything he learned in one book.

Also posted at Goodreads.

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