The Ghost, the entertaining and sometimes exasperating political thriller by Robert Harris, about a former British prime minister trapped in a web of lies, starts out with a whopper of its own. Before the first sentence, on the copyright page, there it is: “Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”
Harris, as political junkies may know, is a former columnist for the Sunday Times of London who has also won a wide readership for his historical thrillers (Fatherland, Pompeii). Soon after his first meeting with Tony Blair in 1992, he became an avid booster of Britain’s charismatic prime minister. That all changed with Blair’s unwavering support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Harris opined against and still feels was a colossal blunder. Disillusioned and angered, the author now takes sharp aim at subsequent events through his thinly veiled characters in The Ghost.
The story opens with this tell-me-more sentence by the first-person narrator, whose name we never learn: “The moment I heard how McAra died, I should have walked away.”
The dead man, Mike McAra, is the ghost writer originally hired to write the memoirs of Adam Lang, the enigmatic former British prime minister. He was last seen on a Martha’s Vineyard ferry, and his body has washed ashore in the winter surf under mysterious circumstances.
With a deadline looming and a record-breaking $10 million advance in the balance, Lang’s people scramble to find a new writer. Our narrator, whose previous projects include the “autobiographies” of a second-rate magician, an inarticulate soccer star, and a self-aggrandizing rocker, jumps at the chance to sit next to real power.
As the deal gets hammered out — $250,000 for a month’s work — Harris takes his tale on a dour and funny detour to poke fun at the book industry. He also gives a shout-out to fellow writers:
A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earthbound. Set down one sentence and it’s halfway to being just like every other bloody book that’s ever been written. But the best must not be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius, there’s always craftsmanship.
Harris gets our hero onto terra firma in Martha’s Vineyard, where he moves in with Lang, his whip-smart wife, Ruth, and Lang’s entourage. They’re ensconced in a borrowed mansion, ready to work on the book, when a political scandal breaks. It turns out that Lang green-lighted the CIA kidnapping of four British citizens — alleged terrorists — in Pakistan. One of the men died under interrogation; the other three wound up in Guant?namo. Lang now stands accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. If he goes home to England to try to clear his name, he risks imprisonment. But since the United States doesn’t recognize the ICC, so as long as Lang stays put in Martha’s Vineyard, he’s safe.
It’s a tough call for a proud politician and it frays his already shaky marriage. Here’s Harris, sending the ghost writer into the maw of one of the Lang’s endless arguments. We’re looking through the ghost writer’s eyes at Adam Lang, but it turns out to be little different than looking through Harris’s eyes at his tarnished hero, Tony Blair.
Lang didn’t look at her, he looked at me. And, oh, what layers of meaning there were to be read in those glaucous eyes! He invited me, in that long instant, to see what had become of him: stripped of his power, abused by his enemies, haunted, homesick, trapped between his wife and mistress. You could write a hundred pages about that one brief look and still not get to the end of it.
Despite the tumult, work on the memoir continues. The more the ghost writer learns about Adam Lang, the less he seems to know. The biggest mystery centers around what really happened during Lang’s college years. As our hero digs for answers, he comes up with a shocking motive for McAra’s mysterious death.
After a languid start, the final third of the book blazes to a satisfying close. Mystery buffs, political junkies, and conspiracy theorists will all find plenty to enjoy. There’s a particularly nifty chase sequence involving the GPS unit in a borrowed car. Harris takes full advantage of the setting for Lang’s exile from power — the bitter winter landscape of a deserted Martha’s Vineyard. It’s impossible to hear the place names without thinking of summer residents like the Clintons and the Kennedys.
Even the title, The Ghost, reverberates. Sure, it’s the ghost writer brought in to drive the plot. But Adam Lang, removed from power, takes on a ghostly cast. And given the part the CIA plays in the terrific twist at the very end of the tale, the slang term for its operatives — spooks — takes on significance.
“I have friends in Washington who just can’t believe the way that Lang ran British foreign policy,” a character tells the ghost writer near the end of the book. “I mean, they were embarrassed by how much support he gave and how little he got in return. And where has it got us? Stuck fighting a so-called war we can’t possibly win, colluding in methods we didn’t use even when we were up against the Nazis!” In the end, The Ghost reads like an angry letter from the author to Tony Blair. Harris can deny it all he wants. With passages like these, though, he hasn’t a ghost of a chance at being persuasive.