Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #68: The Ghost by Robert Harris
The Ghost Writer is a well-written cerebral mystery, my favorite kind, about a high-level political conspiracy involving so-called allies the United States and the United Kingdom, and the so-called war on terror. It is told from the standpoint of an apolitical celebrity ghost writer, who gets what his agent describes as a “breakthrough” job offer to write the memoir of a controversial former British prime minister. The catch is that his predecessor on the job, who was also the prime minister’s aide for decades, had just mysteriously drowned after writing the worst memoir ever, and the publisher is offering our hero $50,000 a week to do a total re-write in one month’s time. An offer too good to refuse … or is it?
Secluded on Martha’s Vineyard island in the dead of winter with former PM Adam Lang, his wife, mistress, entourage and bodyguards, our ghost writer gets conflicting pictures of the man. Lang is warm and charming one moment, rude and explosive the next, and some of his memories appear to conflict with the facts. Our writer finds a cache of photos in his predecessor’s belongings which raise some interesting questions, and then a British intelligent report is suddenly leaked to the press by a disgruntled former colleague of the PM’s, implicating Lang in approving a rendition of four British citizen–who were then subject to torture and at least one death at the hands of CIA interrogators–during his term in office. Shades of Tony Blair? The global human rights crowd goes crazy and the International Criminal Court at the Hague launches an investigation. Lang goes flying off to Washington to accept the full support of the American administration, and our ghost writer stays behind on the island with Lang’s angry wife. With nothing else to do, our writer starts following up on clues regarding his predecessor’s death. He soon discovers the size of the conspiracy he has stumbled upon, and draws the fire of some powerful enemies. Switch gears to a more standard Bourne conspiracy-style plot.
Our ghost writer is no Jason Bourne, however, and despite his wits that keep him alive long enough to penetrate to the heart of the plot, his days are numbered. The tension is palpable and the twists and turns of the plot kept me guessing til the end, where another sock-it-to-me plot twist awaited. The Ghost Writer is no literary masterpiece, to be sure, but it is a well-conceived thriller and manages, without resorting to pedantic lecturing or obvious philosophic digressions, to raise thought-provoking issues such as the use of torture, the nature of relations between nations, the role of intelligence agencies, and more. Definitely a step up from the usual political conspiracy thriller. [And I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I got a good education on the role of ghost-writing today, which dispelled some of my pedestrian notions about the trade, and reaffirmed others.]