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People's prince of darkness

THE GHOST, Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £18.99)

CHARMING, energetic and once universally loved for his brilliance in front of a TV camera, Adam Lang is a former British prime minister whose world is falling apart. Terrorist bombs are going off in London and he is holed up in a Martha's Vineyard mansion with his brainy wife Ruth and a bevy of secretaries and secret service men, fearing he is about to indicted for war crimes.

You could hardly makes this stuff up, but Robert Harris claims he has. Probably the least believable thing in his new thriller The Ghost is its disclaimer - "any resemblance to persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental". Whether it is Adam Lang/Tony Blair or Ruth/Cherie you won't get the image of real life doppelgangers out of your head anywhere in this novel, even when the narrator finds himself "staring into the surprisingly deep and shadowy valley of [Ruth's] cleavage."

Harris has such renown as a thriller writer it can be easy to forget his earlier life at the heart of the political establishment. He is a friend of Peter Mandelson and a former political editor of the Observer who was an enthusiast for Blair's New Labour project as it came together to sweep away a generation of Conservative rule in 1997. Ten years on, Harris writes with all the venom of a disappointed lover.

His story is told by a writer who is offered the deal of a lifetime to complete the former Prime Minister's memoirs after his pen-pushing predecessor, a lugubrious party loyalist, dies on the job. But just as the new ghostwriter accepts his commission, Lang's world begins to come down on his remaining friends. Events are driven from the left of the stage, where Richard Rycart, the principled but vain former foreign secretary, provides the detailed information to the International Criminal Court which seems certain to bring Lang to trial.

It is a simpler and more superficial tale than Harris's thriller Fatherland, which envisaged a world in which the Nazis triumphed in Europe, and much less substantial than his meticulously researched romps through the ancient world, Pompeii and Imperium. This is a shot from the hip, a rapid-fire attack blazing with fury.

Anger often makes the best writers wittier and The Ghost frequently reads more like a comedy than a thriller. When the ghostwriter explains the logic of modern biography to Lang, he tells him the book shouldn't be written with policy-makers or political hacks in mind, but should have something for everyone. "The people's memoir?" puts in an aide.

Later, as the narrator sits in front of a television screen with Ruth watching Lang arrive at a deadly serious meeting with the US Secretary of State in distant Washington, the former Prime Minister's wife barks at the screen: "Don't grin." Inevitably, the instruction doesn't work. "[Adam] beamed at the camera. He looked like an eager student collecting a prize on speech day. 'O for f**k's sake,' shouted Ruth."

There's a cartoon quality in all this which brings to mind the actor Robert Lindsay playing the part of the former Prime Minister in Alastair Beaton's two television plays, A Very Social Secretary and The Trial Of Tony Blair. There are shades too of Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up!, which played out Thatcherism in farce. The Ghost is larger than life, over the top and yet in its explanations - "name me one decision that Adam Lang took as Prime Minister that wasn't in the interests of the United States of America" - depressingly plausible.

Underlying the jokes is Harris's fiery sense of outrage, which he beautifully conceals behind his narrator, who hasn't an opinion to his name, or even a name. This writer's most recent No1 bestseller before the Lang project is the story of TV magician: I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered. He is in every way the child of Blairism/Langism and the biggest gift he brings to Lang is his lack of passion.

Harris is the polar opposite and the charge list which Rycart itemises is the conscience of the book: extraordinary rendition, torture, carnage in Baghdad, Guantanamo, the start of a new 100 Year War in the Middle East. This is the author's voice, from a furious but still bemused liberal England, which went all the way with the former Prime Minister until his baffling but bloody decision to stand by George Bush in the war in Iraq.

The Ghost allows Harris to take his revenge, to give people he hates their comeuppance. Yet Lang emerges an enigma, whose motivations are clouded and who remains capable of acts of heroism. At the end, we still don't really know who the real Adam Lang is. And readers seeking an explanation for a former Prime Minister's decision to follow America into war will be disappointed. Only Tony Blair's memoirs will enable us to untangle fact from fiction.

 
 
 

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