After having done a review on Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman I was eager to see how Ghosts of Manhattan would measure up against it.
At first I was not too impressed. The plot seemed too transparent, I thought it was obvious after about 50 pages who the eponymous Ghost was and who was most likely the villain, I was wrong about the latter. I also realized that I measured Ghosts of Manhattan along the wrong standards. Ghosts of Manhattan is not a mystery tale, it is straight forward pulp. After I got that, the novel suddenly became very enjoyable.
Ghosts of Manhattan is a dirty, gritty, action-packed noir tale. The hero, The Ghost, is haunted by memories which are only hinted at until the finale and from which he takes part of his strength to fight crime. The New York he is trying to protect is a city with the Mob like a festering wound at its core, it is the New York of the Roaring Twenties, only darker.
Along with the Ghost comes the full range of characters you would expect in a noir setting: The driven, untouchable cop in the form of Donovan. Celeste the beautiful jazz-singer from a seedy bar, the hero’s love-interest with a dark secret. Countless expendable goons and The Roman at the head of the pyramid of crime, terrorizing the city for his own nefarious ends, which run far deeper than I expected. The characters are very believable within the setting despite and maybe because of the cliches they are. The Mafia wants to bribe the good cop, when money fails they threaten violence against him and his wife. The second-in-command of the mob is a sleazy, demonical rat, the good cop a tough but fair guy who can take a beating.
In best pulp fashion, the action starts quickly and keeps going at a very fast pace right to the last chapter. The tension also never leaves this novel, there is always something happening. Fistfights, shoot-outs, mad chases across the roofs of New York, every page holds another thrill.
However, this noir tale goes further and deeper:
There is the steampunk, or maybe in this case, dieselpunk background it is set against. We get steam-powered cars, rocked-accelerated biplanes, tesla-coil power generators and creatures of strange science. This all ads flavour to the story, from the technology used by all protagonists, from weapons to heavy equipment, to the history of the world and the reason The Great War came to an end and what led to the cold war between the USA and the British Empire.
There are also elements to the triad of principal characters: The Ghost, Celeste and The Roman, that you would not get in a normal noir setting, but I may not say more, lest I spoil it for the reader.
Now for the few downs of the novel:
As I said before, the plot is a little too straight forward and transparent for my tastes. Also, The Ghost resembles Batman too much. This may be excusable by the fact that you do not have too many options when it comes to pulp heroes with a dark secret or mysterious past, still, the parallels are too obvious.
Also (SPOILER ALERT), The Ghost of Manhattan effectively has two separate endings. The first one comes with the, unfortunately inevitable, loss of Celeste. The second comes a few pages later, with the discovery of another mystery that was already hinted at in the margins of the novel. I would have much preferred a more ambiguous demise of Celeste, something that would have made a rescue possible, but who knows what the future holds in a world where reality is not all it seems and there are forces at work beyond mortal comprehension (END SPOILER)
To sum up:
All in all The Ghosts of Manhattan is a very enjoyable read. It is pure pulp entertainment. Once you get into the flow of the narrative, it is hard to put the novel down again. It drives you ever onward to the seemingly inevitable conclusion.
Yet, the conclusion is not inevitable. The Ghosts of Manhattan ends with a major twist and a scene which promises a sequel.
Ghosts of Manhattan makes for excellent entertainment on dark, rainy evenings. Best enjoyed with your favourite piece of Jazz or Swing playing in the background.