“The Ghost at the Door” Michael Dobbs (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Ghost at the Door Michael Dobbs book cover

Harry Jones’s girlfriend Jemma says “Tell me about your father.” Five words that tear Harry’s world apart.

His father died on a ship in Greek waters registered in Panama and owned by Russians with a female companion. Greek authorities wasted no time in processing the body and, at the time, no one asked too many questions. But now, having lost his Parliamentary seat and pushed to near bankruptcy by a friend whose problems he ignored and then got dragged into, Harry has time to ask questions.

He also has Jemma, a school teacher used to finding answers to awkward questions, especially questions that begin “Why?” At least to start with. However, a lead takes Harry to Bermuda and when he returns injured, Jemma changes her mind and decides it’s too dangerous for Harry to continue asking questions. At this point her tantrums and dithering over her commitment to Harry became irritating and I wondered if I was missing something as I’d not read any of the previous Harry Jones books so didn’t know her backstory. She does bounce back to follow up a lead, at which point the irritation becomes forgivable but trying to give Harry relationship problems on top of death threats and the stress of being a main suspect, also became a subplot too far.

The questions all focus on an old photograph taken of Harry’s father and his friends at Oxford University. Two people in the photograph are already dead, killed in separate accidents. Another has disappeared. Can Harry track down the remaining people in the photograph and figure out what happened to his father before he is also killed? When the police suspect he is responsible for a murder, but only have circumstantial evidence, can Harry also clear his name? Because Harry is a former politician, the press pack are never far behind him either.

Harry is also confronting memories from his past. His parents separated and Harry stayed with his mother. He saw his father’s actions as a betrayal, making things unnecessarily difficult for his mother. His father largely became absent, leaving Harry to develop his own resources for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Inheriting a sizeable fortune helped, but is no recompense for a supportive family.

It’s Jemma that finally solves the puzzle by realising one of those things that seems really obvious once someone’s said it but isn’t at all obvious until it’s been said. The killer’s been hiding in plain sight, but, the closer he believes he gets to succeeding, the more arrogant he becomes. That’s when mistakes are made. A final twist shows that father and son share more characteristics than either of them would admit to.

The characters and plot are brought to life without extraneous details. Harry is credible and likeable. His father’s friends, and Harry’s contacts are recognisably human: flawed, some nastily so, but more than a sum of their flaws. Their actions are understandable within the context of who they are and the part they play. The pacing is both realistic and fast enough to hold interest, without losing the reader. “A Ghost at the Door” is a book that welcomes readers.

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