January 11, 2018

READING WITH THE ENEMY:

by Jeffrey Archer
324 pages, HarperCollins

Review by Pat Black

A long time ago, I was staying at the house of some people I didn’t like. Having a nosey at their bookshelves, I noticed Jeffrey Archer’s The Eleventh Commandment.  

To date, they are the only people I know who have given Jeffrey Archer houseroom. It figured; join the dots to connect the smirk on my face. 

Out of curiosity, I had a look at page one, and upgraded my smirk to a sneer. The novel opened with a burglar making a mistake (is the Eleventh Commandment “thou shalt not get caught”? Oof, irony). This is a guy who doesn’t make mistakes, we’re told, because “he was the professional’s professional”.

I thought this sounded cheesy. It had the tone of a cover blurb, a buzzword, a cliché. I mentioned this to a friend, later. What constitutes “good writing” is an unending argument, usually between arseholes. But we were in agreement for once: this wasn’t good writing.

We were prejudiced, of course. Bigoted, even.

Over the years, I’ve wondered about the literary career of Jeffrey Archer. Politically we are opposites, so I won’t waste anyone’s time examining his record as a Conservative MP and peer, his stunning downfall and perjury conviction, or any number of controversies he was involved in during his, let’s say, colourful life as a public servant.  

In terms of his books, I wondered why he was so successful – and he is un-f***ing-believably successful. His sales are bigger than just about anyone’s. It’s hard to reconcile these numbers with any other living writer. They make Stephen King’s figures look modest. Every single book has sold millions of copies. What’s the secret? I wondered.

One night, I saw a Kindle offer, and cracked.

Twelve Red Herrings is a short story collection. The breathless testimonials tell you that Archer is “the master of the twist in the tale”. So, I was expecting something along the same lines as Roald Dahl’s short stories, but perhaps not as deftly penned; that’s exactly what I got.

Curiously, Archer asterisks some of his stories on the contents page – denoting tales he has adapted from real-life situations he’s heard about. I couldn’t decide if this was ultra-honest, or very odd. I can’t think of any fiction writer in history who didn’t draw upon real life in some way for their work. Why make the distinction?

My first proper dip into the fictional world of Jeffrey Archer was “Trial and Error”, running to some 80 pages. Here, a British businessman lines up a deal potentially worth millions after entering an arrangement with a partner. Things go off the rails somewhat when he gets home early one night, to discover his would-be business partner entering his wife.

One trusty British right cross later, and his rival is on the floor, unconscious. The cuckold (conservatard cuck?) spins on his heels, and makes a stiff-upper-lipped exit.

To his surprise, he is subsequently arrested for murder. There’s no body, but the scene of his earlier confrontation looks very like a crime of passion has taken place there. The businessman is sent down, but of course, he’s been set up – made to look like he killed his wife’s lover in a jealous rage, before hiding the corpse. All the while, the conspirators wait to collect his share of the money from the original deal.

So, he gets a private investigator to track down his rival-in-hiding, hires top lawyers to challenge his conviction, and seeks revenge on both his duplicitous business partner and his money-grabbing spouse. Naturally, there’s a wee twist in store before the final curtain falls.

In “Trial and Error” we are introduced to elements which will repeat in the rest of the stories. This book was first published in 1994, but it arrived at the marketplace post-mortem; its stories have all died and gone to Yuppie Heaven.

They feature people pocketing incredible sums of money in the world of big business, city trading and the law. They also have a very stiff spine of conservatism – families, property, titles, Oxbridge degrees, inherited money. There are a lot of illicit affairs, with women usually seen as part of some elemental horse-trading between powerful men. And usually, a con is involved - rip-offs, double-crosses, tables turned.

Many of these elements took me back to those people I didn’t like, all those years ago. Their interests and conduct dovetailed with Jeffrey Archer’s fiction so neatly, they might as well have had a framed portrait of him adorning their walls. Or maybe one of Jeffrey and Mary, the perfect couple, big smiles, his hand on her shoulder; cracking haircuts. This would be displayed in the foyer to the Thatcher Annex, of course.  

But I’ll say this: I rattled through “Trial and Error” at pace. There was nothing particularly distinguished about the writing, but perhaps that’s Archer’s secret. These are simple stories, told well. I was sleeping with the enemy.

“Cheap At Half The Price” sees a different type of deception, as a wife sets her sights on very expensive jewellery – but it’s out of her husband’s price range. Luckily, she has a few irons in the fire to help her get what she wants.  

This was a domestic con, centring on a cheating wife who will do pretty much anything to get her hands on the sparklers. This woman ostensibly has no independent power, money or influence barring what her good looks can get her. Some people might see this as a realist reading of her situation.

Even without any erotic content, this tale had sidestepped into the realms of eighties porn – wearing high heels, pearls, big hair, and not much else, unless you’re counting a vast, dense bush; entirely unsurveyed territory, a great blank space in teenage spotters’ guides. It’s funny how that sort of topiary is viewed as a feminist statement nowadays. “Cheap At Half The Price” most certainly cannot be regarded as a feminist statement.

I didn’t like anyone in this story, or their lifestyles. But I still cut through it like number one clippers.

“Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm” involves another bluff, blustery supper club tradition – rowing for Oxford or Cambridge. It’s Cambridge in this case (although Archer went to Oxford in the 1960s). This story looks at a modern-day student searching for the artefact in the title – a bronze cast of an arm belonging to a rowing legend, someone who died in murky circumstances. I found the subject matter of this tale tedious, but… I read it. Double-time. My cox set a very fast pace, and I kept up.

“Do Not Pass Go” was even more gripping – the story of a former Iraqi minister living in exile, who ends up back in his homeland thanks to some terrible luck on board a diverted plane. There’s a considerable price on his head in Baghdad; a glance at the passenger list sets off an alert among the authorities. Again, this one was all about the con – how is the wanted man going to escape the Iraqi agents, while they search for him? A fair premise for a cheap thrill in a book – but for some interesting real-life tangents regarding Iraq and Jeffrey Archer, I would direct readers towards the story behind the author’s Simple Truth charity, which raised a fortune for the Kurds during their time of persecution by Saddam Hussein.

“Chunnel Vision” featured another con, and one every writer secretly dreads. That great idea you’ve got, that spark which will turn into a surefire bestseller – what if someone else got there with it first? Our twist, facilitated by another vengeful partner, was predictable, but the sadism underpinning it was fun, if you enjoy that sort of thing.

And now we come to the jaw-dropper.  

Set in the seventies, “Shoeshine Boy” sees a British diplomat stationed in one of those colonies it’s possible to forget still flies a Union flag - somewhere remote, and not necessarily tropical. Rather than a reward for a distinguished parliamentary career for our hero, this place seems to be a bit of a two-bob waystation. Still, one must keep buggering on. That’s the British way. One simply can’t get the funds to put on one’s finery in the colonies these days, one finds.  

But then – der-derrr! – it turns out Lord Mountbatten is coming to visit. Every effort must be made to put on a bit of spit and polish for this most esteemed royal visitor and war hero. At 24 hours’ notice, the diplomat and his formidable wife effect a bargain basement makeover in order for the island to pass muster for this uniformed doll in a box. Tasks range from hastily stitching the red carpet Mountbatten’s sainted boots will meet straight off the plane, to laundering and primping his very bedsheets.

This sycophantic carnival includes Dad’s Army-style military volunteers with cobbled-together uniforms and borrowed weapons, a spit n’ sawdust local baker who gets cracking with the catering, a retired butler forced back into service for “one last big job”, a cleaner hired to spruce up the colonial residence, silver service on loan from the scrubby family down the street… you get the idea.

No-one gets paid for this. Such is the deference, you half-expect the diplomat to place his wife at their esteemed guest’s disposal in the bedroom. But it’s a fairly good-natured farce, if you ignore the politics of it - which I cannot.  

If Archer hadn’t already been ennobled at the time of publication, I’d be tempted to speculate that he wrote this in the hope of securing a knighthood. It features brutal subservience and craven kow-towing to someone we are meant to automatically assume is our superior in every single respect; an individual wielding authority on a par with Ming the Merciless, whom you should displease at your peril.  

It is told in the tone of a wuffly after-dinner anecdote at a club that won’t let you in without at least an MBE. Here, at last, I found a fat white whale to prick with my prejudices.

The conclusion to the story made me feel even worse – centring on the act of cleaning Mountbatten’s boots. This honour fell to the diplomat, exhausted after a day’s crazy wheezes, in order to maintain his grand pretence.  Ooh, the irony – a diplomat performing the task of a menial skivvy! Just imagine!

And then we arrive at the “twist”. You see – ha! capital! - Good Old Mountbatten was in on the great deception all along. He found it rather amusing and jolly. Ha! What-what?

“What?”

“Shoeshine Boy” was near-diabolical… but nowhere near difficult to read. And I did read it all. You’ve got to give the author that, however grudgingly. The person who penned this story has talent, if not quite flair. Archer knows exactly what he’s doing. You’re eating from his hand, like it or not.

“You’ll Never Live To Regret It” sees an insurance con, as a man takes out life policies despite his lover dying of Aids.

“Never Stop On The Motorway” must be one of those asterisked stories, because you’ll have heard urban myths resembling it. After doing what the title tells us she shouldn’t, a woman is tailgated by an aggressive driver on her journey home down a lonely backroad. The radio tells her a rapist and murderer is on the loose. Can she return to the safety of her house before the honking van driver can do her a mischief?

This one was an excellent thriller, though, as I said, most readers will see the twist in the tale coming from a long way off.

“Not For Sale” sees a woman struggling to make her way in the world of high art - an interesting jaunt, albeit with money on its mind.  

“Timeo Danaos” was the most Roald Dahl-esque story in the book, with an unpleasant penny-pincher trying to find himself a bargain on a Greek holiday – with predictable and pleasing results.

The final effort, “One Man’s Meat”, sees Archer at his most playful. It looks at a man struck dumb by a beautiful woman – and going to incredible lengths to win her. It falls into that strange zone beloved of classic romantic comedies, where the protagonists engage in behaviour which we can now identify as morally dubious, at best, under the guise of amorousness. This guy’s painted as a romantic free spirit, but reading him in 2017, he is effectively a stalker.  

However, Archer surprises us with four separate alternative endings to his story, all corresponding to how one likes one’s steak cooked. These cover a variety of scenarios and outcomes, which it’d be a shame to spoil. Not a bad effort at all – even experimental. A fine riposte to the author’s many critics.

So, it’s the morning after. We’ve slipped out before the milkman - perhaps not even bothering to shower first. We’ve all been there. What’s the verdict, as we report back to our friends over coffee and spite?

Good, I have to say. We could feather Lord Archer with arrows all day over elements of character, cliché and plotting, and set up just about any literary pitfall in his path. But there’s no denying Twelve Red Herrings is an engrossing read.  

Every dial on my dashboard is flashing red, but I’ve gone back for more, securing his New Collected Stories for fresh Kindling.

Fair’s fair; the person who wrote this book is a skilled storyteller. 

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