Outlandish, but could it be true?

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Outlandish, but could it be true?

Mike McAra washes up dead a few miles along a deserted shoreline from the house on Martha’s Vineyard where he’s been working.

The dead man was, ironically, a ghostwriter, working on the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang.

Was it suicide or did McAra get bumped off by agents unknown because he uncovered something unsavory during his research about Lang?

When we learn that former British Foreign Secretary Richard Rycart has just given evidence to the International Criminal Court that might bring Lang to the dock on charges of war crimes, it’s clear Lang has something to hide.

But what?

Unlike the last Robert Harris novel I read, “Archangel,” which was just plain silly - a ridiculous setup involving Stalin’s long-forgotten son emerging from Siberian forests to take on the world - “The Ghost,” which came out last year, is riveting stuff.

In fact, I was so absorbed in the plot that at one point I wasn’t sure if I was reading fiction or actual contemporary British politics.

I’m not exaggerating. I stayed up late one night tearing through this highly readable thriller and the next morning when I turned on CNN to catch the headlines I half-expected characters from the book to pop up on screen for an interview with Anderson Cooper.

Actually, Harris is a former TV journalist, which might explain why the story reads like the plot of a genuine current affairs drama.

The story is narrated by the ghostwriter, whose name we never discover, hired to take over from McAra.

The narrator admits at the start of his account that his gut instinct is to turn the job down. After all, no-one wants to step into the shoes of a dead man, especially someone who died in disquieting circumstances.

But, lured by lucre and dumped by his girlfriend who detests every atom of Lang’s body because of his support for the war in the Middle East, the writer inks a contract worth a shedload of money and is jetted off to Martha’s Vineyard on the U.S. northeast coast where he gets sucked into the escalating crises enveloping the former PM.

It’s not long before the narrator’s having a bit of naughtiness on the side with the PM’s wife, trying to avoid anti-war demonstrators and fathoming out what secrets his predecessor unearthed that might have led to his lonely wet death at sea.

The story is clearly a blatant vilification of an actual former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Mrs. Lang, with whom the narrator enjoys a brief bedroom tumble, is most definitely a barely disguised Cherie Blair.

The description of her bulky sweaters and less than photogenic features are a big giveaway.

Political junkies will note that Rycart has to be based on Robin Cook, the late Labour MP who quit as Leader of the House of Commons in protest against Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Rycart is bitter enough, as Cook must have been, too, to want to bury his former boss.

Like any political thriller, you have to keep a heaped spoonful of salt beside your reading table as you plow through. But even with salt to hand, I wasn’t convinced by the “sat-nav” plot device.

The narrator jumps into McAra’s old car and follows a previously programmed satellite navigation route that leads to a house whose occupant reveals a vital breakthrough in understanding what happened to the hapless McAra.

That was too far-fetched for me, as was the old man on the beach who conveniently pops up to give the narrator a fresh angle on McAra’s death.

And as for the final twist, well, it’s a peach and I didn’t see it coming and you probably won’t either.

Outlandish, yes, but conspiracy theorists will be left at the end of the read convinced it’s all true.

The Ghost

Author: Robert Harris

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Arrow Books

By Michael Gibb Deputy Editor [michael@joongang.co.kr]

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