The Ghost by Robert Harris
The Ghost by Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster 2007)
It would be churlish to review a thriller as anything other than a work of entertainment.
The superlatives larded upon The Ghost are all earned. The novel is gripping, engrossing, exciting, seductive, delicious and all sorts of other words you see in big type on the cover of a mass market paperback. I read The Ghost in three days and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who enjoyed political thrillers.
The story is about an unnamed ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of a recently retired Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The current draft is turgid, the media baron who paid $10 million for it is becoming impatient, and, oh yes, there's the unfortunate fact that the first ghostwriter, a Downing Street coatholder named McAra, fell from a ferry and drowned. If the ghost will hie to Martha's Vineyard in winter – where the ex-PM is holed up at the media baron's waterfront estate -- and turn the manuscript into something publishable, he'll receive a quarter million dollars.
“And this is where, in that parallel life, I express polite sympathy for the elderly Mrs. McAra ('such a shock to lose a child at that age'), fold my heavy linen napkin, finish my drink, say good-bye, and step out into the chilly London street with the whole of my undistinguished career stretching safely ahead of me,” the ghost writes. Of course, he's actually on the next plane to Boston.
The ex-PM's name is Adam Lang, but author Robert Harris isn't playing it coy. The book is about Tony and Cherie Blair, and Harris damns with the fervor of a true believer who learned that his heroes were human after all – and this is where reviewing the book becomes difficult.
Harris uses the guise of a pulp novel – an excellent pulp novel -- to accuse the Blairs of complicity with U.S. war crimes, including torture and illegal rendition. One of the book's characters accuses Blair of treason and lays out the Bill of Indictment:
“'One: deployment of British tropps to the Middle East, against the advice of just about every senior commander in our armed forces and all of our ambassadors who know the region. Two' – up went his right index finger – 'complete failure to demand any kind of quid prop quo from the White House in terms of reconstruction contracts for British firms, or anything else. Three: unwavering support for U.S. Foreign policy in the Middle East, even when it's patently crazy for us to set ourselves against the entire Arab world. Four: the stationing of an American missile defense system on British soil that does absolutely nothing for our security – in fact, makes us a more obvious target for a first strike and can provide protection only for the U.S. Five: the purchase, for fifty billion dollars, of an American nuclear missile system that we call 'independent' but that we wouldn't be able to fire without U.S. approval, thus binding his successors to another twenty years of subservience to Washington over defense policy. Six: a treaty that allows the U.S. to extradite our citizens to stand trial in America but doesn't allow us to do the same to theirs. Seven: collusion in the illegal kidnapping, torture, imprisonment, and even murder of our own citizens. Eight: a consistent record of sacking any minister – I speak with experience here – who is less than one hundred percent supportive of the alliance with the United States. Nine --”
“ 'All right,” I said, holding up my hand. 'I get the picture.'”
As do we.
There's a point of specificity where an author can't hide behind the argument that “it's only a novel,” and, as you just read, The Ghost plows past that point with brio.
Harris can't prove his many allegations against the Blairs – as one of the book's characters admits -– but that hasn't prevented Harris from impugning the patriotism of the Blairs on the British bestseller list.
Harris' attack on the Blairs is one-sided, without an acknowledgement of Tony Blair's great calculation. The U.K. has a choice of being one of twenty-seven constituent parts of an ineffectual European superstate or of being partners with the United States and trying to change the world.
Blair chose to stick with the United States -- even if the U.S. was wrong -- because he made the judgment that the Atlantic alliance was ultimately best for the U.K. The political battles over the War on Terror are already receding – victory has a way of doing that – and Blair will be vindicated in the end, although not at the end of Harris' book (which provides a crackling climax).
Perhaps Harris pulled it off: He wrote a political poison pen letter in the guise of a thriller that's so good it gets judged warmly by the loose standards of popular fiction. But Tony Blair will, I am confident, be judged laudably by the stringent standards of history.