The Ghost by Robert Harris

The Ghost - unconvincing

We at TVC have read only two of Harris’s novels – The Fear Index and The Ghost.  We hope that the books in his esteemed Cicero trilogy are better than the two which we have read.  It’s not that they are bad or boring  – Harris knows how to plot a page-turner –  but in the end they are disappointing.  They are rife with lazy, unlikely coincidences and the big reveal in each of them is a let-down.

The ghost-writer in The Ghost doesn’t have a name and often doesn’t get any acknowledgement in the “autobiographies” he writes for washed-up rock stars and monosyllabic sportsmen.  He doesn’t even get invited to the launch parties.  Therefore he is  surprised when asked to clean up and finish the draft  autobiography of a former British prime minister (Adam Lang) for which Lang has been paid ten million pounds.  His predecessor, who wrote the truly awful draft, drowned when he fell off a ferry (but we know he didn’t “fall off a ferry”).  The ferry was taking him  from Boston back to Martha’s Vineyard where Adam Lang and his entourage are holed up in his publisher’s holiday house, working on the book.  Our ghost is dubious when told he has to finish the job in a month – but when he is offered a whole lotta money he takes it on.

The compound at Martha’s Vineyard is rife with tension – Lang is “not quite right”, his wife is snippy.  His assistant is cold, sardonic and (naturally) too elegant not to be having an affair with her boss.  The sense of constant Special Branch surveillance is well captured.  The idea of Barry, the surly, burly bodyguard waiting in his minivan or on a stool in the hallway reading Harry Potter is just right.  Harris’s clean  sentences evoke the deserted wintery island very well.  His fast-moving story with its hints of a monumental reveal to come – “”how different – how very different – the course of my life would have been if I hadn’t immediately gone running towards that garage….I see myself now as if in a movie, or perhaps, more aptly, in one of those filmed reconstructions on a TV crime show: the victim skipping unknowingly towards his fate, as ominous chords underscore the portentousness of the scene”  – promise a gasp-worthy ending.

Harris can be funny –  “”Clinically depressed? He may have had treatment for it?  Really?’  I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice. If this was true, it was the best piece of news I’d received all day” and “The squirrel came back and regarded me malevolently from the roadside.”  He also does a great line in insults (none of which we will reveal).

Unfortunately, the coincidences set-in after an intriguing set-up.  The ghost-writer shelters from the rain on the veranda of an apparently shut up house which in fact contains a garrulous old man who tells  him something vital (“‘Now that was a funny business,’ he said”); he serendipitously discovers suspicious documents  (documents which would have been destroyed); a Very Important Phone number happens to be scrawled on one of the documents and he sets off on a search lead by a pre-programmed gps  (which would have been cleared).   Lucky coincidences are the worst aspect of poorly-written mysteries, Harris should know better. Finally the ghost  discovers something online which a million others would have already discovered and we are beginning to sigh..

The sense of  rising urgency and suspense depends in part on an uproar and media storm of which Lang is the centre.  Lang is in the news for having apparently used British SAS troops to pick up four British subjects in Pakistan and handing them to the Americans. The four were taken to Guantanamo and tortured.  One died.  Lang is referred to the International Criminal Court for trial as a war criminal.  It is difficult to see why any of this would cause the outrage and hysteria that it does in The Ghost.   But then, The Ghost was written in 2007 and the world is a bit tougher now.

The manuscript is not to be taken from the building and not to be copied.  The ghost-writer is mugged by professionals who think he is carrying the manuscript,  but  we never know why, or who hired them.  The question of who knows why the manuscript is so dangerous is not satisfactorily answered.  Nor do we really understand why he has settled into a hotel when he cannot work there in the evenings, whereas he could stay at the compound.  (When he does, there is, sadly, some gratuitous and unlikely sex).

When it is finally uncovered, the secret (and its by then obvious twist) are not earthshattering, as we have long been told to believe that they will be.  In fact, only the naïve reader would give it more than a “meh”,

Although we at TVC do not believe in “summer holiday reading” as a thing, this is the sort of book which you could read on a ferry on the way to Martha’s Vineyard.


  1. Reply

    Smug of Glebe

    November 14, 2016

    The 'New York Observer' called it the "Blair Snitch Project" - I get that Harris didn't get Iraq, but what did he see in Tony in the first place?

  2. Reply

    Angie Ryder

    November 14, 2016

    Harris skewers Blair and his dewey-eyed admiration of America, and Cherie's gimlet-eyed ruthlessness.

  3. Reply

    Tim Clarke

    November 15, 2016

    These are 2 decent thrillers, but they're not the best that Harris has written. In my opinion these are "An Officer and a Spy";"Pompeii" and the first 2 volumes in the Cicero series "Imperium" and "Lustrum" and just behind these "Archangel" and "Enigma".

    • Reply

      Lesley Jakobsen

      November 15, 2016

      Thanks for that Tim, it's interesting to hear. I'd like to give Harris another chance. Would you recommend that I try, "An Officer and a Spy"?

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