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Originally published Friday, February 15, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘Ghostman’: a fixer takes on a big, dangerous mess

In debut author Roger Hobbs’ thriller “Ghostman,” a fixer in the grand tradition of Jack Reacher tries to bail out a friend who has bungled a very big heist. Hobbs reads Feb. 21 at Seattle’s University Book Store, and Feb. 22 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Roger Hobbs

The author of “Ghostman” will appear at these area locations: at 7 p.m. Thursday at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., free (206- 634-3400 or; and at noon Feb. 22 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle, free (206-587-5737 or

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Roger Hobbs is one precocious guy. He wrote his novel “Ghostman” (Knopf, 336 pp., $24.95) between his junior and senior years at Portland’s Reed College, revised it his senior year, sent it to an agent the day he got his diploma, and now — all of 22 — is a real author.

Not unique, certainly, especially since pretty much anyone can go the self-publishing route.

So what’s the difference?

A) He’s getting a major push from a major house and

B) He deserves to. “Ghostman” is terrific: lightning-quick, absolutely compelling and smart as all get-out.

The book revolves around a professional high-end robber. You can call him Jack. “Jack” is very successful, not least because he’s obsessive about staying off the grid. He keeps his head down and uses only the best tech for security.

But his quiet, anonymous life shatters when he’s forced to clean up someone else’s mess.

Five years earlier, Jack stupidly ruined a huge score in Malaysia that a guy named Marcus had set up. Jack has been in Marcus’ debt since, and now it’s time to collect.

Marcus has a mess on his hands. He set up an armored-car heist in Atlantic City — more than a million in government cash — but things went seriously wrong. The two heisters were ambushed, one is dead, the other’s running scared, and the money’s in the wind.

Enter Jack. He’s got less than two days to find the dough — otherwise a timed ink-bomb will explode and render the money worthless. So he heads to Atlantic City and goes hunting. What he finds is not exactly straightforward — in fact, the money trail has some genuinely unexpected double- and triple-crosses.

Jack’s persona has clear echoes of some well-known crime-fiction figures. One is Winston Wolfe, Harvey Keitel’s implacable fixer-of-messes in “Pulp Fiction.” Another is Parker, Donald E. Westlake’s consummate heister — careful, meticulous and dangerous when necessary.

But perhaps most of all there’s Jack Reacher, the loner knight-errant of Lee Child’s novels. Reacher is the thinking reader’s action hero: awesomely knowledgeable, always several steps ahead of his opponent, and capable of zigzagging to Plan B when the unexpected happens.

So think of “Ghostman’s” narrator as a Jack Reacher who uses his powers for evil and not for good. OK, not quite evil, since our thief is a fully imagined character with lots of interesting facets — he may have questionable morals, but he’s also got plenty to make us root for him. (You have to love a guy who spends his downtime translating the classics — in longhand.)

And about being awesomely knowledgeable: Jack is a bottomless well of amazing details about all kinds of stuff, criminally minded and otherwise. Much of this has to be taken on faith.

An example: I don’t know much about Swiss banking (more’s the pity), and I have no idea if some banks really do require presenting a gold bar as one step toward accessing an account. But Jack sounds authoritative, so who am I to doubt? Assuming that Hobbs has no firsthand knowledge, “Ghostman” is, if nothing else, a testament to some prodigious research skills.

The book’s a little overlong — perhaps the flashbacks to the botched Malaysian job could have been trimmed. But that’s a minor point. Overall, “Ghostman” is a real piece of work — without question, the strongest crime-fiction debut I’ve read in a long time.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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