How far are you willing to stretch to enjoy a story? It’s a slick-slippery slope. I usually want my novels with their feet rooted in terra plotta firma.
But occasionally, I’m willing to let go. If the writers are as good as Robert Harris, count me in.
I loved the movie version, “Ghostwriter,” and felt compelled to see how this played out in print. I am apparently one of the few who was not familiar with Robert Harris, but now fully appreciate the appeal.
I read a version of the book called “The Ghost” and must say I prefer the more enigmatic title, but I can see why the filmmakers might have preferred a more explicit one.
“The Ghost” is a solid thriller. I’m not sure where the lines are drawn between mystery-novel and thriller-novel and this one blurs them nicely as our unnamed hero, a ghost writer, must sort through how his predecessor perished and simultaneously determine his employer’s role in high-risk international politics with all sorts of high-risk implications for England, The United States and Pakistan. The ghost writer’s employer is the British Prime Minister, closely modeled after Tony Blair. (The film version makes this obvious connection even more obvious.)
If the thriller part is the international foreign intrigue, then the mystery part is the fact that this plot, for all its potential for impact and import on the global stage, is up-close and personal and surrounds the writer’s interactions with the Blair stand-in, Adam Lang, and his wife and a few associates. Most of the book is set on the bucolic island of Martha’s Vineyard and that helps keep events small and controlled (mystery elements) until, of course, there’s a need for bombs and shooting (here comes the thriller stuff again). Of course the ghost writer soon discovers what we know—this assignment is a deadly form of quicksand. The writer struggles to extract himself, or at least understand why the footing won’t hold, and only sinks further.
Many of the scenes in “The Ghost” are talk—but they are well done. The ending is right up there with, perhaps, “Presumed Innocent” (Scott Turow). Come to think of it, that title would have worked just as well here, too.
“The Ghost” stayed within itself.
Not so for “The Fear Index.”
This plot cranks the meter up into the shake-your-head-and-swallow-hard red zone, the needle spiked, but Harris manages to make us care about Alex Hoffman who, no matter how rich and powerful, needs redemption and one day begins to discover that he is being invaded and being watched.
Events he usually controls are going very much off the rails. So, we care. Or at least, we go for the ride. The roiling financial markets are at the heart of “The Fear Index” but so too is Hoffman’s increasingly worried view of the world, a view being tortured and squeezed by the very machines he has programmed to control or at least exploit those very same markets.
The ending is a laugh.
It’s silly and simple and yet somehow satisfying, too. When all else fails, fetch the gasoline tanks and a match.
“The Fear Index” is frothy, foamy and fun. A frolic. Swallow hard and keep reading.