September 21st, 2011


The Ghost

Back in 2009, when I was doing a lot of ghostwriting to make ends meet, my cousin lent me the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris (subsequently renamed The Ghost Writer after the movie came out, which I did not see). I haven't read much of Harris' work, but I did like his alternate-history novel Fatherland, so I thought I'd give it a go. Of course, such is my life that it took two years for me to actually get around to reading it, but that's neither here nor there.

The unnamed protagonist of The Ghost is a professional ghostwriter, though one who routinely makes five or six figures per project writing celebrity memoirs, whereas I never broke the high four figure mark for my work. Harrumph. Anyway, he's handed the plum job of writing the British ex-prime minister's memoirs after the previous ghostwriter on the project died under mysterious circumstances. To make matters more complicated, the ex-PM, a Tony Blair stand-in named Adam Lang, is currently under investigation by the Hague for possible war crimes--namely, did he authorize the kidnapping of four British citizens off the streets of Pakistan in a rendition-and-torture operation that resulted in one of those citizens dying in custody?

Harris is very wise to keep any opinions he may have about extraordinary rendition and torture off the page, as well as never explaining whether the four British citizens were innocent or guilty, and keeping the focus tight on the moral dilemma and escalating sense of threat as the ghostwriter uncovers more and more of the truth. I have to admit to preferring the more intimate, whodunit atmosphere of the first half of the book, as well as Harris' focus on the ins and outs of writing in the early chapters, which of course I find fascinating; but since it's a thriller and not a mystery, pretty soon shady CIA agents are involved, which is of less interest to me because it seems like every thriller has to have shady CIA agents these days. (Remember when CIA agents used to be the heroes of thrillers? How times have changed!)

Harris is also that rare breed: a bestselling thriller writer who actually knows how to write. Unlike, say, James Patterson, who even with the help of underpaid hungry young "collaborators" can't seem to put a coherent sentence of more than four words together, Harris can turn a phrase, he can nail just the right word at the right moment, and he doesn't treat his novels like roadmaps for screenplays. He writes them with an understanding of the power of the written word beyond rote descriptions of rooms, people, and action.

The Ghost is a great, fast-paced thriller for anyone who loves thrillers, and even for those who don't usually, since it strikes me as a notch above the usual examples of the genre. It also packs a special thrill for writers, too. Though it may make you think twice about ever ghosting a political memoir.