The Ghost aka The Ghost Writer, Robert Harris

Arrow, 2010 film tie-in reprint of 2007 original, 400 pages, C11.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-099-53852-3

I completely missed this novel when it first came out.  Like many thriller readers, I had pigeonholed Robert Harris in the limited-interest “historical thriller” subgenre and opted out after Pompeii when he announced an entire trilogy of classical Roman thrillers.  It didn’t help that I found his novels a bit too slow and generic to catch my attention.

Fortunately, The Ghost is a welcome change of pace.  It’s decidedly modern, decently paced, easily accessible and a joy to read.  While it also mines history for inspiration, it only goes back a few decades, and could only have been written in the past few years.  It deals with contemporary politics, the craft of writing, cutting-edge conspiracies, sordid spying between friends and combines it all in a classic thriller framework.

It starts amiably enough: A London-based professional ghostwriter, a not-to-be-named scribe for the stars, is suddenly offered an important job: He is to drop everything, fly to an estate on Martha’s Vineyard island and help an ex-British Prime Minister write his memoirs.  So far, so good:  He’s a professional, and if the job is high-profile, it’s nothing he’s not prepared to handle.  The politician is so polished that no humanity can escape from him?  No problem.  He sees evidence of marital problems accompanied by hints of an affair between the ex-PM and his assistant?  Whatever: Our hero has a job to do, and after working with rock stars, vapid actresses and illiterate football players, it’s not a high-profile politician that is going to be a challenge.  Even formal charges of war crimes by the International Court against the ex-PM are more interesting than troublesome when our writer gets drafted in writing a statement that is immediately repeated around the planet.

But the situation gets more problematic when our narrator begins accumulating details about his predecessor, who died in an increasingly mysterious fashion after finishing a poorly-written first draft of the biography in question.  Left almost alone in an isolated house, our protagonist is seduced by the ex-politician’s wife, and discovers documents that suggest even deeper secrets.  Left to his own devices while his subject is off confronting international public opinion, the ghost writer soon finds himself trapped in a series of long-repressed secrets that go all the way up…

No doubt about it: Thriller readers are in for a treat with The Ghost.  The perfectly paced rhythm of the novel is initially kept slow: We’re charmed into the story via the titular ghostwriter as he goes about his job and gives us a look at an inglorious profession, with plenty of tricks, tips and revealing anecdotes along the way.  The narration is clean, engaging and effortlessly takes us from one chapter to another.  When the mystery starts, we’re ready for it; when it flips over to thrills, it’s also at the right moment.  By the last act, which takes places between high-stakes power-brokers and tackles weighty geopolitical issues, The Ghost is already a success.

For followers of British politics, there are plenty of extra thrills in contemplating a barely-disguised portrait of Tony Blair leading to a conspiracy theory at once implausible and revelatory.  Among other things, The Ghost is an eloquent demonstration of the possibilities of vengeful writing, as Harris seems to be channeling a fair amount of rage at recent history and uses that emotional power to shape a novel that criticizes key British policy decisions.  In that fashion, The Ghost is not too far away from John LeCarré’s equally-compelling The Constant Gardener.

Readers who have seen Roman Polanski’s well-made movie adaptation will be pleased to find few noteworthy differences between the novel and its big-screen counterpart.  The most notable change come late in the book, which features scenes set in New York that were relocated somewhere else in the movie to accommodate the director’s travel restrictions.  Otherwise, a good chunk of the novel’s events, tone and rhythm are faithfully adapted, in large part due to a script co-written by Polanski and Harris himself.

For disenchanted Harris fans such as myself, The Ghost is a reminder that he can do a whole lot more than write about Roman history.  For thriller readers, it’s a perfectly mastered genre exercise, and for readers in general, it’s a really enjoyable novel –not to be missed now that it’s widely available in a movie tie-in edition.

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