Ghosts of Manhattan, George Mann. Pyr, New York, April 2010, paperback, $16.00, ISBN 978-1616141943.
Reviewed by John Bowker.
Back in high school, I had a friend who was a bit too fond of the bitter black stuff writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore were distilling out of the sour mash of American comics in the mid-1980s. After binging on too much Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, we’d find him curled up in shadowy corners, practicing his stony stare and trying to compose his own trademark warning to whatever evildoers might be stalking the suburbs. As teenagers, we were all engaged in similar struggles with the mundane evils that lurk in the hearts of men (and women), so his frowning and squinting made him seem less grim than constipated. We’d usually just sit him in front of an old Monty Python rerun and wait for him to loosen up.
Ghosts of Manhattan, George Mann’s homage to the pulp superhero genre draws from an equally rich well of inspiration, but unfortunately, it suffers from similar problems. Overly familiar characters and situations, combined with a general lack of humor, drain most of the fun from the book.
The story unfolds from multiple perspectives. At its center is the millionaire Gideon Cross, a playboy whose only passion appears to be hosting debauched parties in the moral vacuum of 1920’s New York. Behind this hedonistic facade, his inner monologue reveals his loathing for his guests, flighty people with no conception of the horrors he witnessed in the Great War. His polar opposite is The Ghost, a black-clad vigilante who stalks the rooftops armed with an assortment of high-tech weapons (flechette guns, rocket boots, night-vision goggles) and a dim view of Cross’s frivolous “ghosts of Manhattan” and the criminals plaguing the city. Rounding out the cast are a beautiful jazz chanteuse, a police detective trying to uphold the law in a morally ambiguous world, and a crime boss known only as The Roman who’s cutting a swath through the Manhattan underworld with only The Ghost standing in his way.
None of these archetypes would be particularly novel to fans of even the original pulps, and after nearly seventy-five years of superhero comics and pulp-inspired films, any suspicions the reader might have about the characters and their relationships to each other are most likely correct. The jazz singer is sultry and has a mysterious past. The detective works with The Ghost, even though his methods go against the rule of law. Cross even has a loyal butler standing by. There are a few surprises; The Roman and his henchmen are a superstitious, cowardly lot in more ways than one. However, though the identity of The Ghost is obvious from very early on, I couldn’t be certain whether it was intended to be a secret; it’s never explicitly revealed until halfway through the novel, at which point it’s suddenly dropped into the narrative without fanfare.
I’ve seen the book described in various places as Steampunk, but mostly that just brings home how meaningless the term has become. Mann’s alternative Jazz Age reads more like a 1920’s pulp setting with some minor brasswork flourishes. Cars run on coal-fired steam and rocket-assisted biplanes are parked on rooftops fueled and ready for the occasional dogfight or chase scene, but there’s not a lot of rationale. (In particular, if all the personal biplanes are internal-combustion engines, why are the cars still running on steam?) The occasional zeppelin floats by, and in true noir fashion, everyone moodily smokes while considering the darkness of the human soul. Descriptions of nicotine-flooded lungs and the crackling burn of cigarette paper are repeated endlessly as the characters careen through a series of pulp cliffhangers interspersed with periods of drunken Gatsby-esque rumination.
Mann is a respected British writer and editor and I’ve heard good things about his previous novel The Affinity Bridge, which takes place in a similarly alternative Victorian London. Ghosts of Manhattan feels more like it was rushed to press, perhaps to strike while the Steampunk craze still had some coal in the furnace. Not to worry, however. The book closes with The Ghost reciting a grim monologue that would do my teenaged friend proud, fulfilling the most important requirement for any comic book or pulp serial: It leaves plenty of room for the possibility of a sequel.