The titular ghost in Robert Harris’s new thriller is a professional ghostwriter, hired to complete the autobiography of a recently ousted prime minister with more than a passing resemblance to Tony Blair.
Operating somewhere between a roman à clef, a political thriller, and a gothic mystery, The Ghost is a slight departure for Harris, most noted for having penned Fatherland, a mystery novel set in a speculative universe, one in which the Nazis triumphed in World War II. But in a sense, The Ghost, like any novel that toys on the edges of real-world situations, is speculative as well, and what it posits about its fictionalized prime minister is intended to be both outlandish and plausible at the same time. Harris has a distinct point to make about England’s willingness to follow America into an illegal war, and unfortunately, the devices used in making that point stifle the believability of the novel.
To begin, there’s an inherent problem in mining public figures to create fictional characters. The closer to reality they are depicted by the author the less believable they become. In a sense, they are akin to humans created digitally for movies. While cartoon characters with disproportionate bodies and exaggerated features can seem alive (think The Incredibles), photo-realistic creations (think The Polar Express) can seem dead on screen, creepily inhuman. This dynamic is at play in The Ghost, where the overt similarities to real people turn characters into caricatures, and hinder the necessary suspension of disbelief.
The ex-prime minister in The Ghost, Alan Lang, has an ambitious wife, Ruth, modeled on Cherie Blair, and a hyper-efficient assistant, Amanda Ryan, who is apparently modeled on Anji Hunter, Blair’s one-time spin doctor, and an infamous figure in England’s political landscape. All three, along with an assortment of security guards, are hunkered down in a neo-gothic mansion on Martha’s Vineyard, so that Alan Lang can finish and deliver his autobiography. Our narrator is called in when Lang’s first ghostwriter, an aide named John McAra, is found dead, having committed suicide by leaping from the Martha’s Vineyard ferry into the icy waters of the Atlantic.
The early stages of the novel are peppered with set-ups and forebodings of malice, like the mantelpiece in a play being lined with loaded guns ready to pop off in the third act. The book is also peppered with the wit and wisdom of the ghostwriter, as he explains his trade secrets. For example: “People who succeed in life are rarely reflective. Their gaze is always on the future: that’s why they succeed.” That one’s directed at Tony … I mean, Adam Lang, and its one of many darts hurled in the direction of the Blairs. Without the threat of libel, Harris speculates not just on political transgressions but sexual as well, placing the Langs in beds other than their own. But like those guns on the mantelpiece, it all seems staged.
The novel is narrated by the ghostwriter, and like the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca, he is never given a name, a gimmick that, like the book itself, is hit and miss. The ghostwriter is a hard-drinking cynic, and he never escapes the confines of that particular cliché. By leaving his narrator nameless, Harris is seeking to make him more of a literal ghost, that shadowy figure at the periphery, but he only makes him more of a blank page to the reader. The gimmick does pan out a little at the end of the novel, where the narrative is at its strongest, and where the lack of the narrator’s name serves some function, but at that point the horses are out of the barn and a long way away.
The best-rendered character is probably the setting. By taking a political thriller outside of the typical corridors of power — the offices and restaurants of capital cities — and by placing it on a deserted summer island in the depths of winter, Harris imbues the story with a genuine sense of isolation and loneliness. Still, the windswept island, and the looming house at the end of its long drive, are hardly original, and its possible I am giving it a pass because I have an embarrassing fondness for that particular chestnut. Stormy nights and houses on cliffs have propelled me through worse books than The Ghost.
As I said earlier, the book ends on a higher note, the suspense ratcheting up as the protagonist is squeezed into a tighter and tighter spot but ultimately, it’s a little too late. Like most books that have a political message to deliver — and this book most certainly does (less a message, really, than a rebuke) — the characters are moved from place to place like chess pieces. Unfortunately, these characters are made from what most chess pieces are made from: plastic.