You’d be forgiven, if you knocked up against him in Portland, Ore., for having no clue that Roger Hobbs is the hottest new thriller writer to emerge this spring. I don’t know what new thriller writers are supposed to look like, exactly—they arrive in all shapes and sizes—but experience tells me they all look more wizened than Roger Hobbs. He is 24 and graduated from Reed College in 2011. He looks like he shouldn’t just be carded but quizzed as to which sweetheart he’s taking to the senior prom.
His baby-faced looks are notable in part since the protagonist of Ghostman, his dark, confident debut, is so steady, cool, knowing and even a little jaded. The ghostman (he goes by Jack to the people he wants to throw off his trail) is a singular, odd creation. He is ruthless—his moral code is to kill only when absolutely necessary, while his colleagues harbor no such scruples—but he is also a meditative loner, someone who translates ancient Roman poets in between jobs. The ghostman is the best in the business at what he does: pull off heists of heavily guarded banks in a highly orchestrated ensemble team of expert criminals. Then, he utterly, totally disappears. To keep everyone in the dark about his location, the ghostman discards an innumerable heap of cheap cellphones and gets close to no one. (A highly literate drinking game: down a shot on each page of Ghostman in which the ghostman crushes the SIM card of a cellphone and then chucks the whole thing out the window.)
Even other highly accomplished criminals are in awe of the ghostman, but it’s due to a previous job he botched in Kuala Lumpur that he now has to clean up the bloody mess left by two less thoughtful thugs. The ghostman owes their boss, so he’s flown from the Pacific Northwest to steamy Atlantic City to do that drug lord’s bidding before a heaping sack of money blows up (the feds have triggered it to detonate in 36 hours if it doesn’t arrive precisely where it’s supposed to be). How he exactingly executes his assignment—with numerous lowlifes and a savvy, determined, beautiful FBI agent after him—makes for a memorable, eye-popping ride.
Rather than the usual tale of the writer hounding the agent, Hobbs’ literary agent found him. It was the summer between Hobbs’ sophomore and junior year at Reed. “I must have applied to 100 jobs,” he recalls and got none. He was sleeping on a couch in the middle of the recession and had no money. Instead, he garnered as many writing clips as he could and submitted a short story that’s clearly the precursor to Ghostman, titled “What’s Inside,” to thuglit.com. Hobbs says he didn’t hear back from the thuglit editors until he saw the story on their site; several months later, the person who would become his agent saw it there and emailed him about seeing his other work. “He hated it,” Hobbs remembers.
The following summer, writing “in a now-defunct Borders in the blistering heat” and throughout his senior year (as he was also writing his thesis about the nature of suspense and character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”), he honed the manuscript. One of the reasons Ghostman is so alluring is its deep level of detail that allows noncriminal readers to feel as if a door has been opened into illegal activity, like how you might crack one of the world’s most sophisticated vaults when you hadn’t been expressly invited to. Cautioning that “not all of the things that sound like they’re researched in Ghostman are researched,” Hobbs acknowledges that he did conduct “a lot” of what he calls “practical research.” “I taught myself to pick locks, I taught myself how to hotwire a car, I traded cigarettes for stories in Seattle,” he says. “Research is a lot of fun.”
Hobbs’ evident confidence has been hard won. When he was a freshman at Reed, Hobbs was a runner-up in The New York Times’ Modern Love college essay contest. His Modern Love contribution begins, “For several years I had a problem unusual among Internet geeks: I had too much success with women.” Hobbs describes his high school self in the essay as “a plump, silent, painfully awkward dweeb who clung to his Latin textbook as if it held the secrets to existence.” He would sweat while talking to a girl he liked, but after he got the gumption to ask for her screen name on instant messenger, he became, online, someone charming and suave. To convince himself he was the Casanova he saw himself becoming online, Hobbs talked awkwardly with another female in person and then flirted smoothly with her online. He did this with another, then another, until he racked up “19 phony relationships,” as he writes in the essay. He was still in high school and broke up with all 19 women.
When he arrived in Portland to attend Reed, he felt as if “I was stepping into sunshine after four years in the dark,” he writes. “.…If I could step away from the lies I had put on the computer screen, I could find a way both to be charming and true to the person I really am.”
Like his protagonist, Hobbs now appears to be at the top of his game, even though the game has just begun for him. Hobbs is working on a sequel to Ghostman (when I asked him what the sequel will be about, he says only “gemstones”). Warner Bros. has optioned Ghostman and is “very aggressively pursuing it,” Hobbs says, though he’s tight-lipped in general on the subject of the film plans for Ghostman. “I’m treading lightly on this question because I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to tell you,” he says.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.