Robert Harris’s new thriller The Ghost begins with the traditional disclaimer: “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.” If you believe that, well, I’ve got this great bridge down the road that you might want to think about buying…
In form this is a simple, if, in the hands of this fine popular writer, exceedingly well done thriller: a basically decent if under-ambitious, “ordinary” individual gets drawn unexpectedly into the world of high politics, and he finds himself suddenly in possession of a very dangerous secret. He’s got to work out what to do, who to trust.
This Everyman is a ghostwriter specializing up to now in the “autobiographies” of second-rate celebs sliding down the greasy pole of fame, who suddenly gets called in to rescue the memoirs of a recently ex-British prime minister who has been thoroughly pro-American in his policies – particularly in backing US military adventures in the Middle East — and faces the risk of war crime charges. He’s got a tremendously intelligent but socially inept wife, a bright personal assistant who’s also his mistress, and is not handling well the loss of power and limelight. “No resemblance to living or dead” – well the initials "TB" might come to mind.
Add to that the knowledge that Robert Harris is a former fervent supporter of Tony Blair now disillusioned with the Labour leader, over that very Middle East policy, as well as other matters, who’s told the world so through his newspaper columns. Then it is clear that that we’re not exactly in a fictional world.
It is not, perhaps, entirely accurate to describe The Ghost as a roman à clef – at least you’d like to think so, although only the next century, when the 100-year rule for political documents kicks in, will know that for sure and certain. (For reasons that I can’t disclose without giving away the neat ending.)
But there’s no worry about boring “real life” politics, or exposition here – Harris whips the reader along at a great pace – skillfully, frequently humourously – there’s great wit in little references and twists that you don’t need to be a connoisseur of British politics to appreciate.
But still, despite the craft, what’s missing here that is found in Harris’s historical thrillers – particularly the superb Pompeii — is his skill in making an unfamiliar world, utterly removed from our modern experience, come alive in a manner that feels real and visceral, that wears wide and solid research lightly. So while this is an enjoyable piece of topical playfulness tinged with spite, it has to be hoped that Harris will return to what he does best, rather than follow the tug of present-day entanglements.