Robert Harris's latest thriller is more than a fun read: it is a super-duper, double fun bag-sized read thanks to his masterful plotting. No, not the story of a ghostwriter caught within the machinations of politician-spies, although Harris handles the espionage element very well.
It is the other story that will make the reader bounce with pleasure: how a supremely well-connected novelist decided to cause trouble for our ex-prime minister by fictionalising the things that he knows, the things that he suspects and, most deliciously, the things that he knows are untrue yet apt to be believed.
The first glimpse of ex-prime minister Adam Lang is at Martha's Vineyard airport. He is caught looking startled at the aircraft door and, immediately, we recognise Tony Blair, who often seems to stare in confusion at the world before a switch trips in his head and the appropriate expression clicks into place.
Yet when his wife, Ruth Lang, asks how he enjoyed his trip to New York, all Adam can do is babble about the aeroplane: "They gave me the Gulfstream Four you know the transatlantic one, with the beds and the shower." The reader is left thinking, is that it? Is that the secret to Blair? That he was, in fact, really crass?
Well, of course not. But this is an elegant exercise in regicide, made all the more enjoyable because it is so cold. After all, Tony Blair is not even our regent, any more. One feels like a not-so-innocent bystander asking Robert Harris if he really ought to put the boot in quite so venomously, while one's inner self is cheering him on.
The Ghost is our guided tour of the world of a prime minister who is capable of blithely explaining the mind of Christ, but completely unable to parse the simplest ethical decision.
Harris's ghostwriter is the second writer on the scene, the first having died in mysterious circumstances. As he begins to follow the trail cleared by the dead man, the ghost begins to uncover a conspiracy that suggests the prime minister is a CIA agent, parachuted into a safe seat and groomed for the leadership of the Labour Party.
This, as Lang's former foreign secretary says, would explain why Lang never took a decision that was not designed to boost the United States. The ex-foreign secretary has moved to the United Nations and succeeded in having Lang indicted on war crime charges. The Gulfstream Four that so excites Lang has previously been used to render Pakistanis to appointments with their torturers.
This side of the story is slightly thin: there are only two large-scale plot twists. Yet there is a compelling air of menace and loss, evoked by Martha's Vineyard in winter. It seems that even a millionaire's playground must obey the law of out-of-season holiday resorts, expressed by Morrissey in Everyday Is Like Sunday ("the coastal town they forgot to close down, come Armageddon").
The protagonists are stuck on this island, in a smallish house, a situation made worse because Lang is having an affair with an aide who, as many people have now pointed out, is far too similar to Blair's Anji Hunter to be a coincidence. The ghost himself is soon slipping into bed with Ruth Lang, prompting one to wonder if Harris has detected a widespread but hitherto unspoken fancying of Cherie Blair.
There cannot be another novelist in the world whose books carry quotations from Nelson Mandela ("a writer who handles suspense like a literary Alfred Hitchcock"); a reminder that Harris is enviably big-league.
Yet this is Harris's first contemporary novel, and even as he is satirising Blair's disconnection from the world, he seems a little disconnected himself. When he describes a Halal butcher surrounded by heroin syringes, his view of our modern cities seems to resemble that of a Cornish nonagenarian channelling the spirit of Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail.
The larger question, though, is: does the novel work? It is absolutely splendid fun in its peculiar and deviously intertextual way. The bed-hopping aside, Cherie Blair feels especially well captured (even if one wonders quite why Harris dislikes her so much).
But the novel will be judged on how it delivers its central charge. Harris does this economically and swiftly. Those who throw around the prohibition on "moral equivalency", he tells us, wish us to stop treating everyone the same.
Yet from trial-by-jury to one-man-one-vote, civilisation depends upon answering to the world as to our peers. Perhaps it takes a noveliser of Ancient Rome to remind us of the classical virtues of democracy.
This review first appeared in The Telegraph.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007