The narrator of Robert Harris’s controversial new thriller (The Ghost) is a ghostwriter and to my surprise and delight he has quoted my book Ghostwriting at the beginning of every chapter. That has set me thinking; why don’t more thriller and crime writers use us as their main protagonists? Like the policemen, lawyers and doctors central to the majority of drama written for page or screen, ghostwriters lead neatly episodic lives. We’re frequently thrown without warning into worlds we are completely unfamiliar with to have intimate and sensitive stories confided to us by strangers. We unravel complicated plots, uncover secrets and attempt to make them work as narratives. All our stories have beginnings, middles and ends.
Harris’s ghost is writing an autobiography for a newly retired prime minister. It is brilliant as a thriller, brilliant in its topicality, but also brilliant in its depiction of the life of the ghostwriter.
Like many detective stories my projects normally start with a call out of the blue – an answer to my classified ad “Ghostwriter for Hire”.
‘Do you like the Far East?’ a distant voice enquires. ‘I have a friend who is a billionaire. He’s a Chinaman living in Kuala Lumpur. He wants you to write his story.’
‘Ever heard of a woman called Jordan?’ a renowned literary agent enquires in another call. ‘Apparently she’s one of the world’s leading glamour models. She wants to meet you at her lawyers’ offices.’
‘Have you heard about the woman,’ asks another, ‘who got the law of double jeopardy changed in order to go after the man who killed her daughter and was acquitted seventeen years ago?’
Sometimes these tantalising morsels come as letters; ‘My mother was trapped behind the Iron Curtain for fifty years, always being treated as a spy …’ Sometimes as emails; ‘The day I was born my father announced he was going to make me the best prostitute in Norwich …’
Next comes a meeting with a usually nervous person – (people who have spied on or worked for government agencies are by far the most twitchy) - who gradually relaxes and unwinds until eventually they’re revealing things they may never have told anyone before.
Callers with foreign accents are particularly tempting, holding the promise of unfamiliar points of view and new discoveries. A Bulgarian millionaire hiding from his government in a luxury chalet in the Swiss Alps? Just tell me which plane to catch. A highly respected Nigerian industrialist who actually understands what has gone wrong in his beleaguered country? I will happily sit at his feet if it gives me the chance to ask any question I can think of. Go to Lahore to track down the life of a bonded labourer assassinated at the age of 13? Count me in.
Whether the invitation is to stay in a recently bombed orphanage in Croatia or an IT tycoon’s beach house in Bermuda, a villa in the South of France or a brothel in the back streets of Leeds, if it promises a new and vivid experience and the chance of a page-turning story it is hard to resist.
Most often we meet in the subject’s home, or in the more neutral territory of a hotel room. Gina French and I laid together for three hot, noisy days in a sweaty hotel in King’s Cross as she described her journey from a peasant childhood in the lush tropical Philippine mountains, via the girlie bars of Manila, to being on trial for murdering her English husband in a bleak little house in the North of England. With no chairs in the room we lay on the bed with the recorder on the pillow between us, battling after lunch to keep our eyes open in the heat while she described a world a million miles from my own, as the London traffic crashed past the open windows. (For a House Made of Stone published by Vision).
In Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London one of the Parisian characters describes visiting a prostitute imprisoned in a cellar where paying customers are free to do whatever they like with her. Even when reading it as a teenager I thought that if someone could uncover the story of that girl’s life it would be a hundred times more shocking and compelling than Orwell’s own dalliance on the mean streets. Recently an apparently bottomless untapped seam of stunning stories has risen to the surface from places just as dark and secretive as that cellar room, tales we have been choosing to ignore for fear that they will be too shocking, too shaming, too embarrassing to bear. We have always averted our eyes from the child brides, abused children and sex slaves who have lived (and continue to do so) through horrors the rest of us have barely dared to imagine. But with the help of ghosts they have been coming out blinking into the light, amazed to find they are being believed, that millions of readers are sympathetic and interested to learn what has befallen them.
In a different hotel room Pete Bennett, the entirely endearing tourettes sufferer who won Big Brother in 2006 and for a few months became one of the most recognised faces in the country, struggled to come to terms with his sudden stardom at the same time as talking to me about a life that had been partly erased from his memory by the tourettes and partly by his use of some of the most dangerous recreational drugs available. In the end it became a family affair with his mother and brother and a variety of friends camping out in the luxurious suite. The generous publishers had to swallow hard as Pete discovered the joys of five-star room and concierge services while the paparazzi, magazine editors and lovesick fans stalked, cajoled and exploited their latest flavour of the minute outside. Seldom have so many different learning curves been ascended in one hotel room in one week.
Robert Harris has captured perfectly the way our lives work, the way we succumb to the temptations of spending one part of our lives nosing around in other worlds and the other part reliving the experiences in our heads and giving them a narrative shape from the safety of our own homes.

Andrew Crofts is the ghostwriter behind dozens of best selling titles. He is also the author of "Ghostwriting" a handbook published by A&C Black, and "The FReelance Writer's Handbook", (Piatkus Books. More details are available at His next novel, "The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride" is due out in the summer of 2008 (more details at

Author's Bio: 

Andrew Crofts is one of the world's leading ghostwriters. Based in London at least ten of his titles have been to number one in the Sunday Times book charts.