The subject – I cannot say hero – of Mr Harris's book is a recent British prime minister whose wife has "thin black eyebrows" and a temper that can flash-fry meat. He has a theatrical bent, having acted impressively in his university drama group, and a talent for conversing with ordinary folk in their own accents. His genius is to "refresh and elevate the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance".
In Downing Street he had slavishly aligned his country with the United States in its "war on terror", going so far as to authorise a secret British contribution to America's "extraordinary rendition" and torture of suspects. He radiates piety and self-regard in equal measure, presenting himself as a stalwart Christian. He humbles himself before the captains of industry, not least by staying in their holiday homes, and enhances himself by wearing orange make-up.
He was prime minister when terrorists struck London's transport, killing many innocent people. Some citizens contend that his "torturings and bombing and lying" make him a war criminal. In this man, usually so cockily muscular, the strain of war has produced a natural exhaustion, yet his efforts, out of office, to make loads of dosh by lecturing in the US and producing his memoirs, are unabated. The memoirs include chapters whose titles signal what he sees as his triumphs: "Changing the Party", "Northern Ireland", "The Special Relationship", "The Challenge of Terror".
This is a novel about someone called Adam (two syllables) Lang (one syllable) who in a great many ways resembles Tony (two syllables) Blair (one syllable), in mannerisms, stagecraft, outlook. But Blair went to Oxford, whereas Lang went to Cambridge. Alastair Campbell is nowhere to be found as Lang seeks a ghostwriter for the memoirs. Instead, the fictive ex-prime minister chooses a loyal staffer, Michael McAra, as his ghost.
As one would expect from Robert Harris, the book is a masterpiece of observation, interpretation and analysis, all nicely paced. Most of the action takes place in the United States, where ex-prime minister Lang has borrowed his publisher's house on Martha's Vineyard to think through his autobiography. His reflections are punctuated by the tantrums of his wife, Ruth, the ministrations of his personal aide, Amelia, the public disclosure by his former foreign secretary, Rycart, of Lang's part in "extraordinary rendition" and McAra's fate.
McAra, an unstylish writer, has carried out his researches only too well, finding out precisely why his boss is so tied to Washington's skirts. He is murdered – by US government agents – for his pains, but leaves enigmatic clues to the crime among the turgid chapters he has completed. These are read by the chap appointed by the frantic publisher as replacement ghost. The latter is the unnamed narrator of Mr Harris's story.
Our second ghost is also thorough, though more cautious than his predecessor. Without wishing to give too much away, one may say that as the tale ends he, too, fears retribution for the sinister matters he has unearthed, even though he prudently and promptly reburies them.
The setting up of the first New Labour leader for a war crimes trial ("aided, abetted and facilitated" torture) is a singular plot, even faintly believable. It has been reported that Mr Harris chose the story because he was upset by Tony Blair's participation in the war in Iraq and/or by the dismissal of Peter Mandelson (Mr Harris's friend) from the Blair Cabinet.
True or not, one can see why a reader might perceive that the author had Blair in mind when writing it. The ambience is right, the dialogue fits, the main characters tally, the spinning is familiar and the cynicism is normal. But I'm happy to enjoy the book as a parody of Blair and his retinue, and of the publishing world from which Mr Harris derives his income and his satisfactions.