- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (October 23, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1416551816
- ISBN-13: 978-1416551812
- Reading group: adult
- Genre: political thriller
The narrator, an intelligent, acerbic and single ghostwriter, is the perfect guy to do a high-stakes job on short notice. In order to recover from breaking up with his latest girlfriend and also for pecuniary reasons he decides to step into the shoes of his colleague named Michael James McAra. McAra had a nasty accident – he fell off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry and drowned while he had been trying to make the memoir of a former British prime minister, Adam Lang, publishable. Adam Lang sounds and looks suspiciously like Tony Blair, the real British ex-prime minister. He and his wife are currently living on a wintry Cape Cod, at the luxurious American estate of their billionaire publisher, where Lang is supposed to finish, with some little help, his “autobiography”. The death of his first “ghost” is just a minor obstacle. Like a true politician Lang won’t cancel the contract and refund his advance – the deal was made in this politician’s heyday and he fully knows he is worth less money now that he’s over the hill.
The new ghostwriter finds the deadline really terrifying and, after all, he is supposed to produce “the first full inside scoop by a leader on the west’s war on terror”. More accustomed to fabricating the memoirs of addled pop stars and inarticulate footballers, our narrator wants to “put some heart” into the leaden first draft left behind. When the rewrite begins, he meets other residents of the estate – Lang’s strangely embittered, restless wife and his slinky personal assistant, an overly devoted woman, who is also Lang’s more or less overt mistress. Soon the situation gets even more complicated and tense. Lang is to be investigated by the international criminal court on charges of war crimes, possibly even of crimes against humanity. When he was in power four British civilians were detained on suspicion of terrorist intentions and handed over to the Americans for interrogation, which meant nothing less than torture. Richard Rycart, an estranged former foreign secretary, has a letter signed by Lang that appears to authorize that arrests. The publisher shortens the deadline, which was already very demanding at the beginning. To make things even more complicated the ghostwriter finds out that some ruthless, faceless powers are after the unlovely manuscript. Perhaps his colleague’s drowning wasn’t an accident after all. What will happen to him and to his client ? Will he be able to finish his job satisfactorily?
What I liked:
“The Ghost” is very good – intelligent, perceptive and fun – as long as it is able to sustain its tone of witty tartness.
The first part I found to be the best – here’s the example why. The unnamed narrator cynically criticizes some former clients while praising his faithful super-slim laptop: “We had endured rock stars who believed themselves messiahs with a mission to save the planet. We had survived footballers whose monosyllabic grunts would make a silverback gorilla sound as if he were reciting Shakespeare. We had put up with soon-to-be-forgotten actors who had egos the size of a Roman emperor’s, and entourages to match.” How not to love him instantly?
Also citing a real handbook on ghostwriting by Andrew Crofts was a very good move – some tricks of the trade were really entertaining and they added a touch of professionalism and reality to the story. Not to mention the fact that I fully agree with the author’s scolding of the publishing business for creating and coddling hack memoirists.
Finally the sensational core of the plot – the great revelation, and the crucial twist in the tail of it – is an accusation no one could make or take literally. The Ghost is, not about Blair; though of course it remains an indictment of everything he did and stood for. I think it is mainly a novel about the traps and snares that wait for everybody who craves power. To cite a sentence from another Harris’s novel, “Imperium”, “power brings a man many luxuries but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them.” How very true.
One more remark : readers should be warned not to read the last pages of the book before they work their way there naturally because Harris has saved a little surprise for them at the very end. In my opinion the last paragraph of the book nearly redeemed most of the faults by the way.
What I didn’t like:
It’s a pity that “The Ghost” loses its entertaining factor in the second, more action-packed part. The book degenerates swiftly into a commonplace “airport” mystery – a novel that its protagonist might have held in contempt when his safety and professional detachment were still there. By introducing special forces, spies and a shadowy evil corporate entity “The Ghost”, I must admit, underwent a complete sea change from its promising early pages. It seems a good ghostwriter would be needed here.
This is a quick, effortless read: good vacation novel but not quite as riveting as I’d expect. If you want to read a good Harris book, try “Imperium”, reviewed by me here.