The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth (2013)

There’s a strong sense of déjà vu about the early parts of this novel.

Like his previous novels Avenger and The Afghan it is about Islamic terrorism. The focus is very American, with scores of pages giving a factual account of the mushrooming of US security and intelligence forces after 9/11, including J-SOC (Joint Special Operations Command – ‘a component command of the United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM’) and TOSA (Technical Operations Support Activity) the agency which will end up running ‘the Tracker’.

Like the previous books the protagonists don’t really have ‘characters’, they have CVs and functions, more like the avatars in a computer game than characters in a traditional ‘novel’. As in Forsyth’s most recent books, they barely even have names but are more commonly referred to by their roles: thus ‘the Preacher’ is delivering blood-thirsty sermons on the internet instructing young Muslims to carry out personal attacks on individuals inside the Great Satan, and this is leading to a wave of fanatical young men stabbing or shooting US senators and other VIPs.

When one of these fanatics shoots dead the retired general father of lifelong US Marine Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, a fluent Arab speaker who has seen action in Afghanistan and the Gulf – it becomes ‘personal’ (p.99). (As in a thousand action movie trailers, the character actually says that phrase.) Carson morphs into The Tracker and that’s how he’s referred to by everyone he subsequently encounters and the narrator for the rest of the book.

Not only are the themes and many of the organisations and the character ‘types’ repeated from previous novels, but so are some of the scenes. For example, this is the third novel where Forsyth references the massacre at Qala-i-Jangi fortress in Afghanistan in 2001, picking out the death of the first American casualty in Afghanistan, Johnny Spann, who was beaten to death by Taliban prisoners.

There is yet another reference to the battle of Shah-i-Kot, where three Chinook helicopters full of special forces were attacked by Taliban fighters and, when a SEAL fell out of one as it did emergency evasion manoeuvres, the others went back overland to rescue him, leading to a prolonged firefight with the baddies. Forsyth places the protagonist of this book, Carson, at the heart of this very battle, where he saves the life of a fellow American who later rises to power in one of the countless security services and – very conveniently – helps Carson get the job to tracking down The Preacher.

The repetitions continue: late in the book there is a page devoted to the method of East German security chief Markus Wolf, who dispatched Adonis-like young men to seduce the ageing spinsters who worked as personal secretaries to numerous West German politicians, thus extracting priceless intel over decades (p.279). This is historical fact. Forsyth uses it as a roundabout introduction to an elderly (aged 75) lady who works as the tea lady at a hostage negotiating firm, but who also happens to be an agent of MI5 and reports back everything she hears of the hostage negotiations (see below). But what strikes this reader is that Forsyth included the same page-length explanation of Wolf’s technique in his previous novel, The Cobra (where a cocaine cartel’s daughter was seduced by just such a good-looking man, who was an agent leading her on).

Similarly, mention of the SAS prompts Forsyth to retell the story of how his heroes ‘took out’ the West Side Boyz in Sierra Leone, in Operation Barras, August 2000 (p.338) – an incident which is mentioned in several of his previous novels. Elsewhere Forsyth gives a couple of pages explanation of the hundi method of money transfer, by which terrorists can avoid using banks (p.309) – also a repeat from previous work.

So throughout the novel the reader stumbles on passages which are strongly reminiscent of, or plain copies from, previous novels.

The truth about Islam

A large example is the scene where – as part of his long and minutely-described military career in Egypt learning Arabic – Carson has several conversations with a peaceable Koranic scholar, who explains how unIslamic Islamic terrorists are, in the way they take small quotes from the Koran or hadith out of context and distort them for their hate-filled purposes. This repeats the scenes in the previous two Islamic novels where Koranic scholars have delivered ‘Author’s Messages’ about how the Koran specifically bans the murder of civilians, the murder of women or children, the taking of hostages etc.

I dare say the teaching is correct, it’s just a) the naivety of dumping it into the book like a piece of newspaper editorial, as if b) Forsyth’s page or two asserting that Islamic terrorists are plain wrong about their own religion will have any impact on any real life terrorists and c) the fact that the same message has recurred in all the recent predecessor books.

Critics could call it laziness or repetitiveness – using more or less the same plot, on the same subject, incorporating many of the same incidents and the same them-and-us, black-and-white Daily Mail point of view. But I see Forsyth’s ‘novels’ as being so devoid of character, so lacking in suspense and – towards the end of each one – so lacking in plausibility, that they become almost avant-garde.

They are like the shiny metal surface of one of his beloved fighter planes. Smoothly tooled and assembled from identikit parts, they present the same forces-of-law-and-order-worshipping worldview in the same super-factual style, devoid of any psychology or character – about as subtle and characterful – but as sleek and shiny – as a cruise missile.

The plot

The Preacher is publishing videos of hate on the internet. Kit Carson aka the Tracker is commissioned to track him down and eliminate him, by a special Presidential Order relayed to him via Gray Fox, director of TOSA. He recruits a computer whizz who he codenames Ariel, and who tracks the Preacher’s ‘secret’ IP address to Kismayo in south Somalia.

[As in the previous novels, the good guy is helped out by a computer whizz kid, this time a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, who is scared to come out of his bedroom but can work miracles online – one Roger Kendrick (p.79). (Even when Forsyth characters actually have names, they are generally bland, empty and characterless; monikers like the Tracker, the Preacher, the Killer, the Geek, have more flavour and depth than the various Rogers or Christophers or Bobs.) Forsyth tells us the Preacher has his own techno whizzkid, a British-born Muslim alumnus of Manchester University, who our guys nickname the Troll – so one recurring strand in the text is the conflict entirely in cyber-space between these two hackers.]

Amid a wealth of false passports and background info about the country’s notorious Intelligence Service, the ISI, the Tracker visits Pakistan, where he is hosted and given a good backgrounder by the local CIA officer. Using intel from various sources he establishes that the Preacher is the runaway son of a Pakistani General, that his name is Zulfikar Ali Shah, that he was radicalised during the Afghan War during which he took the nom de guerre Abu Azzam.

The Tracker concocts a childishly simple plan, which is to recreate in a Hollywood studio the exact backdrop and look of the room which the Preacher uses, to hire an actor (Hollywood bit-part player, Tony Suarez) who looks like him and a voice mimic who can sound like him, and to impersonate one of the Preacher’s broadcasts – then use Ariel to get it published via the Preacher’s authentic website.

But, in this fake video, the Preacher will abjectly apologise for inciting violence, saying Islam is really a religion of peace and love, and begging forgiveness for his errors (p.264). The idea is that his many millions of followers will be so disgusted by his ‘apostasy’ from the cause that one or more of them will kill him in revenge. Forsyth goes into the mechanics of hiring studio, actor, mimic and so on with his customary thoroughness – but the reader can’t help thinking it’s a silly plan.

Luckily, Forsyth throws a massive spanner into this linear plot, and the thing which – for all its repetitions – makes The Kill List different from its predecessors and a genuinely interesting read. He introduces the Somali pirates.

Somali pirates

A Swedish cargo ship, the Malmö, a 22,000-tonne general cargo freighter carrying Volvos to the East (p.203), is hijacked by Somali pirates, led by one of the most cruel and sadistic, Al-Afrit, meaning ‘the Devil’. Forsyth gives fascinating background information about Somalia the country, its geography and recent terrible history, the reason for the rise of the pirates and the evolution of their methods, which have reached such a maturity that London shipping companies now employ professionals to negotiate the release of their hijacked ships, and some of the London negotiators have become quite familiar with their Somali negotiator opposite numbers.

Thus when news come through that the Malmö has been hijacked, the London insurance firm of Chauncey Reynolds turns to the experienced Somali-hijack-negotiator Gareth Evans who is himself delighted to find, in the first phone call the firm receives, that the pirates are represented by Mr Ali Abdi, a suave, Western-educated lawyer, with whom he has done business previously.

We learn that the Western ship owners are always in a hurry to secure the release of their ship but how that works in favour of the pirates, who have all the time in the world. Forsyth tells us the ransoms normally start out around $20 million and invariably fall, through lengthy and protracted discussions, to around $5 million. This, like so much else in the book, is eye-opening stuff, like a well-written article in a high-end newspaper.

But this (fairly routine) hijacking impinges on the plot because the ship’s owner, Harry Andersson, had sent his youngest son, Ove Carlsson (19), aboard the ship as his first experience at sea. It turns out to be a very bad experience as, when the ship is anchored off shore and Al-Afrit visits, he takes a fancy to the tall blonde boy and has him dragged of the ship, thrown into a dungeon, chained and whipped. Just for kicks.

Opal

After the broadcast of the fake sermon begging forgiveness, the Preacher obviously knows someone is out to get him and has hacked into his computers. This is confirmed when his computer whizz kid, the Troll, is murdered by Israeli agents in a typically complicated and well-organised raid from an inflatable dinghy, which Forsyth describes in mind-boggling detail. The Israeli operatives rendezvous with their permanent agent in Somalia, codenamed Opal, on a deserted beach, before arranging the Troll’s assassination.

In a plot development which stretches credulity, Opal is then tasked with taking the package the Troll was carrying up to the Preacher’s compound in the north. Here he is to play the innocent who just happened to come across the Troll dying in a car wreck (in fact carefully staged by the Israelis), and say that the Troll asked with his dying breath for Opal to deliver the package.

On arriving at the Preacher’s compound with the Troll’s package and this unlikely cover story, it is no surprise that Opal is imprisoned while his story is checked out. So good is the Mossad arrangement of the Troll’s ‘accidental’ car crash that the Preacher’s men return and say Opal’s story checks out, so he is kept hanging around the Preacher, and then – as his knowledge of languages becomes known – the Preacher realises he may be able to use Opal and asks him if he wants to work for him as fixer and translator. Perfect. ‘We’ have an agent inside the enemy camp.

This was the Tracker’s plan all along. The compound had been identified using computer technology to track it down as the source of the internet sermons and is under surveillance by a Global Hawk permanently monitoring it from five miles up in the sky. But there is no replacement for human intel, and it is only when Opal, as instructed, slips on the red baseball cap the Mossad agents gave him, that our boys can be really certain that the Preacher is actually there, in residence in the compound. So the Tracker and his team finally have all their suspicions confirmed.

At this point all their planning hits a roadblock, for the powers-that-be ie the President, as advised by his chiefs of staff, vetoes all the options for taking the Preacher out. The compound is in the heart of Mogadishu ie too near innocent civilians to send cruise missiles. And no US President is going to send in troops after the catastrophe of Black Hawk Down (the 1993 debacle when some 18 US Rangers were massacred in a botched raid).

Fortunately for the Tracker, though less so for the victims, what changes official attitudes is a further Preacher-inspired attack in the States, this time a ruthless machine gun attack on a coach load of CIA employees which turns the coach, stuck in rush hour traffic, into a charnel house. Within hours a message is relayed down to the Tracker from the Top – terminate the Preacher.

The blonde hostage

Through his contacts in the Somali underworld, the Preacher becomes aware that the notorious Al-Afrit has hijacked a Western ship and has taken captive a very Western-looking blonde boy. He has a brainwave. The cruel murder and decapitation of the hostage on live TV, in the best Taliban-ISIS tradition, might just restore his image among his disillusioned internet audience as a scourge of the West.

So the Preacher sends a message to Al-Afrit offering to buy the boy. In the parallel conversations which have been going on all this time between the Somali negotiator Abdin and Gareth Evans in London, Abdin tells the Brit that his ‘principal’ has agreed to the $5 million ransom and that the Malmö will finally be released – hooray – but then has to reluctantly admit it will be without the blonde boy, who has been sold on to what Abdin thinks is the Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Gareth puts his head in his hands.

Taking out the Preacher

The novel builds to a surprisingly effective climax. The spy-in-the-sky tracks the Preacher as he and his bodyguards depart his compound in a Toyota Landcruiser and drive south to the rendezvous point with Al-Afrit’s men, there to buy the blonde boy. (Opal’s presence is vital because he manages to sit in the exposed back end of the truck and once again puts on his red baseball cap to confirm to the via-satellite-watchers that the Preacher is there in person. But Opal’s presence also means they can’t take the convoy out with a cruise missile: Mossad would never forgive them.)

Therefore, it has to be a boots-on-the-ground operation. And there is an entertaining and plausible account of how the Tracker escalates a request via TOSA to the Prez himself, to ask him to phone British PM David Cameron, and request use of an SAS squadron, he’s found out just happens to be training in the Gulf.

Thus the final fifty pages or so are another hymn to the rugged professionalism of the Special Air Service, the unit Forsyth hero worships and who appear in nearly all his novels, each time with much the same detailed backgrounder on their history and structure and training etc (p.352ff).

But, for the first time in several novels, this final sequence is actually very gripping because, instead of giving us his usual high-level and brief summary of an action, Forsyth’s narrative descends ‘into the action’, as it were, with page after page describing the tense build-up to the parachute drop of the six SAS men and the Tracker into the Somali desert near the rendezvous point. I was gripped by this blow-by-blow account like I haven’t been for ages.

Our boys parachute into the desert, ‘tab’ the 8 or so klicks to the village, chuck doped steak to the pye dogs to make them sleep, then attack. In a textbook engagement, they ‘slot’ or ‘take out’ all the Somalis pirates in one village house, then slot the Preacher’s bodyguard as they run across the village square, meantime managing not to kill the Israeli agent, Opal, who slipped his identifying red cap on as soon as the shooting started.

And the whole movie, er, novels builds to a traditional climax when the Tracker comes face to face with the Preacher on the dusty, flat roof of one of the peasant houses. Here the two men have a short, intense knife fight among billowing washing hanging from the peasants’ washing lines by moonlight, which ends with the Tracker nutting the Preacher and, taking advantage of the latter’s momentary loss of grip, stabbing him in the heart. As the light goes out of the baddy’s distinctively amber eyes, our hero gets to whisper in his ear the words his father whispered to him as he died, the motto of the Marine Corps, semper fidelis, shortened to semper fi.


Thoughts

Anyone saddened by the steady decline in Forsyth’s books will be surprised: in my opinion the plot is more interesting and believable than its three predecessors and, because of this, it actually builds to a thrilling and gripping conclusion. It is certainly a return to form after the strange fizzling-out of the previous novel, The Cobra.

Many critics deplore Forsyth’s lack of character or credible plot. Many others dislike his enthusiastic depiction of his heroes’ outside-the-law, vigilante approach to ‘justice’. All true – but I find the books interesting. Hundreds of their pages may consist of little more than detailed background research linked together by far-fetched plots, but it is background information on extremely relevant subjects ie the international drugs trade, international terrorism.

As a tiny example, Forsyth can’t describe a meeting of Mossad officials discussing whether to co-operate with the Tracker’s scheme and commit Opal to his plan, without mentioning that they’re meeting in the same room where their predecessors planned ‘Operation Wrath of God’ to avenge the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1974 Munich Olympics.

The stories are so geopolitical in nature that they are larded with interesting information and insights into recent (war) history on almost every page. Snippets like this are interesting in themselves but also link the action back to previous conflicts. Through the hundreds of similar references, Forsyth’s fictions create a matrix or web bringing together the history of recent conflicts, wars, insurgencies, international crises and weaving them into a compelling (and terrifying) worldview.

It is the coherence of this worldview which I find compelling and, seen from this angle, the repetitions of accounts of recent conflicts aren’t a negative, they positively reinforce his military point-of-view.

Also I admire his ability to keep up to date. There is none of the ‘chaps meeting in gentlemen’s clubs’ which I associate with thrillers of the 1970s, 80s and even 90s. Instead US operatives sit in darkened bunkers staring at screens on which they see the images from Global Hawk predator drones relayed to them by America’s global network of spy satellites. They waggle joy sticks and press a button and a cruise missile obliterates the target they’ve identified.

The protagonists of the last few novels can’t get anywhere without the assistance of young digerati, computer dudes, surfing the dark net, hacking into banks and hidden internet IPs, setting screen against screen.

I admire Forsyth for, after 40 years in the trade, keeping up with not just the latest technology, but the way the hyper-digital world of today shapes every aspect of crime, terrorism and the efforts to combat it.

So, in conclusion, the lack of characterisation and the sometimes simple-minded plots don’t matter to me compared to Forsyth’s compelling vision of the world we live in now, a fast-moving and very dangerous world of skilled terrorists, throwaway mobile phones, 6-mile-high drones, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the infinite complexities of cyberspace.

A world in which men with grievances born in Palestine or Afghanistan or Yemen might start machine gunning us on beaches in Tunisia or concert halls in Paris or nightclubs in Florida, with no warning – while, on the other hand, an unprecedented level of surveillance of every aspect of our lives by numerous ‘security services’ has slowly insidiously grown up in the last fifteen years.

Forsyth’s latter books are not great novels – from a purist point of view they are lamentably bad novels – but I think they offer fascinating, compelling and snappily-written visions of the dark side of the world we live in now, a world in which terrorists can attack anywhere at any moment, and our side ‘kill people based on metadata’, and most of us are caught in the middle.


Credit

The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2013. All quotes and references are from the 2014 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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