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When Joshua Gilder decided to give up his place in the trenches to become a novelist, he didn’t do what your average former Reagan speechwriter, ex-State Department honcho, and consulting-firm co-founder would do: write a mildly titillating and thinly veiled roman a clef savaging the Washington scene.

Instead, Gilder wrote a complex and compelling thriller about faith, hope, and…plastic surgery.

“I’m a contrarian,” says Gilder, a friendly and soft-spoken man who lives with his wife, Anne-Lee Gilder, and young child in Bethesda. “So of course I opted to write about something I know nothing about. I’ve been in politics my entire adult life. But I wanted to write about human beings, not political stick figures.”

Gilder’s new mystery, Ghost Image—which concerns a young plastic surgeon, Jackson Maebry, whose life spins out of control after he discovers that the badly burned and battered woman who arrives in his hospital’s emergency room is his girlfriend—took five years to write. Says Gilder, “I’d love to say I tossed it off, but that’s not how it happened. I was working full time”—here Gilder laughs—”and I’m a person who can only do one thing at a time.”

Gilder stopped trying to do two things at once and took a hiatus—which continues still—to write full time. And he didn’t have to leave home for editorial guidance. “The book’s set in San Francisco, so not surprisingly I filled it with fog. And my wife—she’s a German native and a former reporter for German TV—went through it and marked every patch of fog. She said, ‘Ninety percent of the fog has to go.’”

She defogged the book?

“Defogged it,” says Gilder. “She’s a ruthless editor.”

Ghost Image may contain less fog than formerly, but it’s still one dark read. Maebry is a guy with issues, and a rather unreliable narrator to boot, but his problems are nothing compared with those of his lover, Allie Sorosh. As events unfold and secrets are revealed, you realize that this isn’t your traditional mystery, in which good guy is pitted against bad and justice is meted out by revolver. In the end, it’s less about justice than forgiveness.

Gilder allows that he was remarkably lucky in finding a literary agent. At the first agency he went to, he approached the first person he met. “I asked him who I gave manuscripts to. He said, ‘I’ll take it.’ It turns out it was the first book he ever

agented. He read it and liked it, so he gave it to…John Grisham’s agent, and they agreed to take it on. I’m not sure how many publishers they shopped it around to, but the process was fast and relatively painless.”

When asked whether he shares his protagonist’s fatalistic view of life, though, Gilder says, “Life is hard. The truth is, we’re going to lose all of the things we live for.”

That’s a rather grim view of things, no?

Gilder disagrees, citing his “gradual conversion” to what he describes as a “kind of generic Christianity” as the basis for his belief that, while life may be hard, death is not the end.

And for now, he says, “I’m very happy writing books. And if I can make a living doing this, that’s what I’ll do.

“What I’m really talking about [in the book],” says Gilder, who is appropriately enough currently at work with his wife on a nonfiction book about the relationship between the 16th-century astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, “is Heaven.” —Michael Little