Seasoned novelist Sir Jeffrey Archer has perfected the art of pulling a literary rabbit out of a hat. Ever since the success of his first blockbuster novel, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, the maestro has simply not looked back when it comes to pursuing thrilling writing. Even a short stint of jail time did nothing significant to dampen his enthusiasm and, indeed, his personal ordeal inspired the witty, occasionally brilliant collection of short stories Cat o’ Nine Tales. Tell Tale is Archer’s first collection of stories since the completion of his extensive Clifton Chronicles series and implicitly derives its name from the author’s own admittance that many of the tales in the book, though not all, have been inspired by true events.

Every single one of the stories contains an unexpected twist at the end — a literary technique for which Archer is famous and which might be considered the unique trademark of his work. Bracketed between two pithy and amusing 100-word short stories written for Reader’s Digest, the rest of the collection covers themes as diverse as scams, theft, adultery, murder, war and literary endeavour. It is difficult to review such a book without giving away too much, or without frustrating a reader with unnecessary spoilers, so I will limit myself to speaking about the collection in fairly general, though comprehensive, terms.

What makes Archer’s work unique is that he enjoys playing a delightful game of cat and mouse with even the most perceptive of readers — indeed, perhaps especially with them. Just when one assumes one knows the punchline or has figured out the twist at the end of the tale, he surprises one with a conclusion that leaves one breathless, or murmuring, “Well, even I didn’t see that coming!” It is possible that diehard fans of Archer’s, for whom guessing his plots may be second nature, might be able to correctly anticipate the endings. However, as always, the writer is one step ahead of us and must have anticipated this because ‘The Holiday of a Lifetime’ provides three endings, from which the reader is permitted to choose his or her favourite. It is testament to Archer’s consummate novelistic skill that all three endings are apt and satisfying, not to mention equally plausible.

In his entertaining latest collection of short stories, Sir Jeffrey Archer demonstrates he is not simply a gifted writer of suspense, but has a remarkably sound grasp of human nature

But to claim that Archer is simply a gifted writer of suspense would be doing him a severe injustice. His stories demonstrate a remarkably sound grasp of human nature. Diverse characters abound in this book, ranging from impoverished but ingenious car park attendants, hitch-hikers and famous authors to staid bankers, conniving women and glamorously thuggish criminals. My personal favourite, ‘A Gentleman and a Scholar’, is about a smart and gifted female professor’s love for Shakespeare and her academic struggles in what was then a male-dominated profession. In a matter of less than half a dozen pages, Archer dispenses with virtually every major theory revolving around the fact that someone other than William Shakespeare authored the plays. One is thus left to enjoy good banter and quotations, not to mention the inevitable twist at the end.

Though many leap rapidly towards comparing Archer with Roald Dahl and W. Somerset Maugham, I find a more useful comparison to be one that juxtaposes his work against that of the formidable Frederick Forsyth. But whereas Forsyth’s novels are grittily serious, Archer thrives on plots that are just realistic enough to escape being termed far-fetched. Forsyth’s superb collection of short stories, No Comebacks, is the perfect foil to a work such as Tell Tale; every story in the former collection ends just as shockingly as Archer’s tales. But whereas Forsyth generally makes one grimace with distaste at the coldly brutal aspect of humanity, Archer leaves us laughing in a mixture of admiration and pique. Nevertheless, both writers are justifiably regarded as masters of suspense.

Archer’s collection implies that people fall into two categories: the very gullible or the very devious. Sometimes the cleverest policeman is found meeting his match in a criminal smarter than him and sometimes not even the shrewdest lawyers can get past a sharp detective, whose attention to detail leaves nothing lacking. ‘The Cuckold’ is perhaps the most brilliant of the tales in terms of plot, with ‘A Wasted Hour’ coming a close second. What sets Archer apart from other notable mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner is that the reader enjoys the actual journey as much as the denouement. This is not to say that the latter novelists are not good at constructing stories in their entirety. They are. However, Archer’s writing generally does not flag from the point it begins to the moment it ends. Even the comparatively long-winded ‘The Senior Vice President’ makes for enjoyable reading throughout.

Diverse characters abound in this book, ranging from impoverished but ingenious car park attendants, hitch-hikers and famous authors to staid bankers, conniving women and glamorously thuggish criminals.

Perhaps the only major criticism that can be made of Archer’s work is that it is often purely entertaining and there is little to nothing in any of the stories that can be construed as deep or truly meaningful. But no writer can be expected to do everything and for Archer to switch from a zany Harlequin (the wise clown of Italian comedy) mode to one more reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy would be a move both foolish as well as out of character. Having said that, I should add that ‘A Wasted Hour’ (ostensibly about a simple road trip) is titled with a supreme sense of irony and no reader will be able to claim that perusing it has been a waste of time. In a world where globalisation is leading to the mushrooming of books and films on serious topics such as climate change and ugly warfare, Archer’s books can be guaranteed to provide a refreshing and welcome escape from reality. And even though reality demands that one re-engages with it at some point, after reading Archer one feels exhilarated, as if one’s mind has been riding rollercoasters at a magical carnival of the imagination.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Tell Tale
By Jeffrey Archer
Pan Macmillan, US
ISBN: 978-1447252313

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 28th, 2018

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