The Ghost by Robert Harris is the first book about a writer that I can remember getting excited to read, glad to trumpet, and eager to put on my 'must read again' list.
It's tough to write a novel about a writer. Most of writing is, unfortunately, solitary and tedious. Write a line, hate it, delete it, rewrite it. A lot of bad literary fiction treats the writerly life, as stumped writers write about what they know: writing badly. This novel is about a ghostwriter who specializes in doing fast memoirs for aging rockers and minor celebrities. He's good at going fast which is why he gets the gig as ghost-writer #2 for a British ex-prime minister who's about to miss his deadline for his contracted memoirs. He's wasted 2 years and now the ghost writer has four weeks.
Of course, there has to be a problem. Ghost Writer #1 didn't resign, throw a tantrum: he died, supposedly throwing himself off a ferry in a storm. Never a good start to a business relationship, something this dark hanging in the background.
The ex-Prime Minister (a version of Tony Blair, perhaps) is the heart of the book. It's beautifully written pages never command more attention than when we're listening to this politician explain his life through a tissue of lies he's constructed.
Too bad for the reader we don't get to spend more time with the ex-Prime Minister, but he's pulled away from us by a scandal held over from his years in office. It seems he authorized the extraordinary rendition of several suspected terrorists and signed papers to that effect; now it's coming back to haunt him so he has to get out and launch a political campaign of sorts to keep the wolves at bay.
This delay allows our ghostwriter to stop writing and start getting curious. He starts digging and that's never going to end well in a novel of this type. The middle third seemed to drag a bit on first reading, but the ending of this brilliant tale forces us to go back and revisit a lot of that conventional-seeming middle and reinterpret it. Nothing's nailed down in this expert tale.
It's filled to the brim, as a novel about an observant writer must be, with sparkling gems of wit and interest. That more than anything sells the novel: the ghost writer at the center of the tale is one bright fellow who still manages to dig himself a grave, gets his analysis all wrong, blunders like an untrained adventurer into the jungle.
A tremendous tale, knotty and mischievous and written better than most literary fiction. This isn't a thriller, as bashed about as that term has become, a repository for a plot without the words to back it up. It's a story that knows what strings to pull and drags the reader along for a great ride.