The Ghost Robert Harris

Hutchinson, pp.384, 18.99

Adam Lang, until recently Prime Minister, is keen to write his memoirs as soon as possible. He employs for this task a hulking apparatchik who was part of his inner team at 10 Downing Street. He takes his wife Ruth, his secretarial staff and this ghost-writer to a luxurious house made available by a millionaire at Martha’s Vineyard in New England. He has an argument with the ghost-writer; the writer gets drunk, falls off a ferry and is washed up on the shore. After he has identified the body Adam Lang quickly recruits a replacement ghost-writer through his lawyer. This replacement, whose name we never hear, is the hero and narrator of the book.

As he arrives to take up his job at Martha’s Vineyard a report begins to circulate that several years ago Lang had authorised the kidnapping by the CIA of four British citizens suspected of terrorism in Pakistan. They had later been tortured and detained at Guantanamo Bay. Egged on by a former foreign secretary whom Lang had sacked, the International Court of Justice (acting with wholly improbable haste) begins to investigate the story. Lang and his advisers decide to speed up the publication of the memoirs so that they will sell even better in the light of this publicity and enable him to set out his side of the story. The accusations and emotions multiply within the team at Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere. The thriller gathers speed.

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The look-alikes in this story are plain enough. Adam Lang is described as ‘having a genius to refresh and elevate the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance’. As neat a summary of Blair as you could find. Lang follows slavishly the policy of the American President to the extent that Americans ‘were embarrassed about how much support he gave and how little he got in return’. Exactly what I heard the other day from an American witness. His wife Ruth emerges as a more attractive though in the end more sinister character than the public perception of Cherie Blair. The vengeful former foreign secretary is a smoother and more vindictive version of Robin Cook. But Robert Harris has not written a political parable and he rams home no political message. His caricatures are an unusual form of ornament decorating an elegant and highly readable thriller. Blair deserves to have a really bitter novel written against him, but this is not it.

There is more wit here than in some of Harris’ previous novels. I particularly liked the extracts from the dull and useless first version of the memoirs which the unlucky apparatchik left behind, a cool parody which ends with the noble sentence, ‘Ruth and I look forward to the future whatever it may hold.’ Harris has a gift of conjuring up in detail a landscape to fit the mood of his plot. He did this with the Russian landscape in Archangel, and he does it again with Martha’s Vineyard. The comfortless grey and white scenery is contrasted with the colourful holiday scenes for which that coast is more famous. It provides the right setting for Lang’s own wintry discontent contrasted with the sunny pleasures of office.

But alongside the thriller Robert Harris is fascinated by the psychological background to ghost-writing. This puzzles me too. I have written books in tandem, first with one friend and then another, and am now starting with a third. I have found this an enjoyable discipline, though a stern test of friendship. But that is a straightforward process quite different from handing over your life to a stranger. You hope, I suppose, that they will unlock your own past and personality in a way which will attract a wider audience than you could manage yourself. I find this hard to imagine. People write their memoirs for money, or to justify themselves against attacks which they think unfair, or just to prolong the pleasure (dear to all politicians) of listening to their own voice. For others the writing of memoirs is a genuine self-examination, an attempt to work out and deliver as authentic an account as possible of what they were and what they did. I can see the attraction of a ghost-writer to the celebrity in need of a quick buck, but for any other purpose he must be an awkward intruder.

Douglas Hurd was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995. His biography of Sir Robert Peel was published in June.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated