I love Robert Harris' books, with my top favourites being Archangel and Imperium and Fatherland, and I was thrilled when I heard about this book, and rushed out to buy it. The combination of gripping prose, suspense, meticulously-researched and built-up background and intelligent characterisation is usually at the heart of Harris' thrillers, and also that touch of 'what if' alternative history/parallel world which adds extra imaginative spice. But though The Ghost is told in his usual smooth and compelling prose, it is a terrible disappointment. At every level, it reads more like an implausible B-grade conspiracy theory film script than a taut, intelligent Harris thriller, and it's so riddled with plot holes and laughable coincidences and events that it's not only difficult to suspend your disbelief, it's basically impossible. It also reads like a personal fantasy of the most embarassing kind, full of spite and yet also perfunctory and lame.
The problem starts with 'the ghost' himself--the ghostwriter whose name we are never told(sometimes in situations where such an omission just beggars belief), who is shadowy though it's his narrative voice we're hearing, and whose character is never really built up(bar a on-off cartoon-character girlfriend called Kate), so inevitably in the reader's mind he becomes conflated with the author himself. I suppose he might be intended to be a quasi-mythological figure, the accusing 'ghost at the feast' type, like Banquo's ghost accusing Macbeth of murder or something. For Macbeth here read Adam Lang, the recently-retired British PM whose memoirs the ghost is meant to be writing, and who bears more than a passing ressemblance to Tony Blair, that is Blair in the fevered imaginations of Blair-haters who characterise him as an American stooge, a combination of dictator and poodle.
That leads us to the next problem--the plot of the novel revolves around several revelations which you can see coming a mile off, given the huge red markers along the way: even the final, ridiculous twist. Then we're told again and again how the baddies are so good at surveillance, how they know everything that goes on, how ruthless they are, yet our ghost writer manages to get away from them with great ease, and they seem unable to stop him contacting the other side. Plus, the central clue to the final twist, contained in a rather schoolboy code, should have been cracked by the baddies yonks ago, given their skill with such things, and yet it isn't. Even by the standards of inept B grade conspiracy films, this is really stretching the reader's credulity. There's a sense of haste, too, of perfunctory sticking in of incidents, and no real confrontation with danger, that makes the action seem flat. Then the conspiracy theory at the heart of the plot is so ludricrous that at every turn you expect the author to undermine it, to say, ha ha, only joking! But no, it's not undermined at all, the whole way, even right to the end. The thing is meant to be taken seriously!
The novel also happens in an odd kind of vaccuum. We're meant to believe both that Adam Lang IS a kind of shadow version of Blair AND that he isn't at all, just an imaginative construct. But unlike say the machiavellian Francis Urquart in Michael Dobbs' brilliant House of Cards, you just never really get a sense of the man as a real character, just as a kind of puppet, which of course suits the author's purpose to some degree but also shows up the hollowness of his conceit, and puts off the reader. You don't get a sense of his background--of Britain itself, of the government after Lang, of anything really except a kind of caricature of a shadow. And this destroys the sense of a real political thriller, of that feeling of high stakes that would keep us personally involved.
Harris was once a political correspondent of some distinction and he is clearly familiar with how power works, at least as far as his other novels are concerned, but in this one, you don't get a sense of insider knowledge at all, just an embarassing ineptness and paranoid imagining of what being a British PM actually entails. In this world, the party, Parliament, the administration, the media, the people, the whole complicated rough and tumble of political life just doesn't exist. It's as if it was written by someone whose sole knowledge of politics is limited to surfing conspiracy sites on the Web. And the central revelations are completely cheapened and weakened by this. They are simply ridiculous in the context of a real political system.
On the plus side, there's a good pace to the book, and the prose is smooth as silk, as always. I did read it to the end, hoping against hope that the author would pull off a good, satisfying ending which would put paid to my doubts about plot character etc. Sadly, I was disappointed. And bitterly so, for after that final twist, the whole thing just degenerates into facile bathos.
Harris is engaged on a trilogy of Roman political life, which began with the fantastic Imperium. I wish he hadn't interrupted his writing of that to give us this embarrassing effusion. It should have stayed in his bottom drawer.