Book Review: Ghosts Of Manhattan

Written by George Mann

New York. November 1927. A man in a fedora, trench coat and red goggles stops a bank heist, in a violent fashion: throwing a man through a holographic statue of Pegasus, firing steel flechettes from a weapon concealed in his arm, burning the face off a robber with the rockets in his shoes, decapitating another robber with a metal disk after the robber killed a hostage. He is the Ghost, fighting a one-man war against crime.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Cross is a wealthy thirty-something, the toast of New York society, known for his fabulous parties. The only person he cares about is Celeste Parker, a jazz singer at a club in downtown Manhattan. He fought during the First World War, saw horrors he doesn’t want to remember and tries to forget it in parties. Felix Donovan is a police inspector, called out to Grammercy Park Hotel where a senator has been killed, found in a compromising position (illegal booze, a dead prostitute beside him) and with two Roman coins (originals, genuine 2000-year-old coins but in perfect condition, as if pressed yesterday) on his eyelids. It is the third murder in as many weeks, all with the same coin-on-the-eyes calling card of the Roman, a gangster who came from nowhere to become one of the most powerful mob bosses in the city, who has never been seen by anyone.

When the Ghost (who was coincidentally also a soldier/engineer/pilot in the war, haunted by what he saw in France) tries to stop two goons beating up a shopkeeper, two giant creatures come out of the goons’ truck: golems, out to kill the Ghost and virtually unstoppable; he barely escapes with his life. Donovan is approached by Gideon Reece, a lackey of the Roman, trying to bribe Donovan into becoming one of the Roman’s accessories, but Donovan isn’t interested. The Roman is a wiry, muscular man in his mid-50s, with a room full of old paintings, antique books, statues and other assorted riches; in his basement, he has Dr Spectorius creating his moss golems (the Roman is looking for a girl hidden by the Sisterhood; Reece has a lead about a singer in a jazz club …)

Gabriel visits the Sensation Club, a jazz club for the rich, where Celeste is singing, when Reece turns up and the shooting starts; Gabriel escapes with Celeste through a trapdoor. It turns out that Celeste is part of the Sisterhood, a group dedicated to stopping the Roman performing a ceremony that will summon a creature to this world. The Ghost investigates the Roman, arriving too late at the house of a doctor who has been murdered and staged like all the killings by the Roman’s gang, but it leads to the Ghost and Donovan working out that they’re on the same side, and that both are looking for Gideon Reece.

The Ghost visits his only friend is Arthur Wolfe, an Englishman in New York (no longer welcome in the US but tolerated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for his expertise on European history), to see him about the Roman’s coins he acquired from the corpse. In return, Arthur tells the Ghost about an Italian man who wanted to buy a mysterious artefact, a large ring with unidentifiable symbols on it, and who got angry when he couldn’t get it. The adventure continues with rescues, escapes, dogfights over Manhattan, a battle in a power station and final confrontations during a strange ceremony …

The prose has unusual instances of fruity language – ‘lipstick all over his prick’, ‘He’d fucked her that night’ – as if the author felt obliged to use it because it is expected of the genre, but it jibes with the rest of the book, which is a sedate, clear unfussy prose with normal, clean language. There isn’t any real sense of time or place in the dialogue, and the third-person narrative means that there isn’t any flavour in the narration. The book has hints of the otherness of the world created for story (hologram tubes for phones, pneumatic trains, steam-powered cars, the moss golems) and the alternate history (Queen Alberta I is on the British throne – when the war started, there was an uneasy alliance with America; but when the British won the war with their great weapon, the Behemoth Land Crawler, the alliance faltered. Alberta is not keen on her mother’s former allies, calling them ‘upstart colonists’ and believes that the British Empire needs to reclaim its former glories, leading to a cold war) but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it or why the world it is the way it is. It’s almost as if it’s just there to distinguish this book from the pulps that are the genetic antecedents (The Shadow, The Spider, Batman), but throwing it into the mix and then leaving it there without extrapolation or exploration. The story has some clichés (the Ghost staying too long at a murder scene so that the police shoot at him), the reason for the Roman’s plans feels out of place instead of a surprising reveal, and I disliked the fate of one of the characters. All this means that I can’t recommend Ghosts of Manhattan, despite my enthusiasm for the DNA of the contents.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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