Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jeffrey Archer: A Twist in the Tale (1988)

Anyone familiar with the dire literary reputation of Jeffrey Archer’s books will understand why, in the end, I decided to go for a collection of short stories. The actual desire to read him, scarcely (I admit) very urgent, originated in a hotel foyer in Malta in January, 2000.


I supposed then that some of the obloquy that came his way must be undeserved. He had been a prominent member of a government that was universally detested by intellectuals; so I expected some prejudice. And then, the plot of his first novel (idly leafed through in the foyer) suggested more than a hint of John Buchan, another Conservative politician some seventy years earlier; a popular author whose books I happened to like. I could well imagine, however, that any modern follower in that line would be exposed to critical condemnation.


Alas, I was disappointed in my anticipation, and the book really is bad –- so bad that even those who themselves would hardly class as sophisticated readers could make great play with it. This makes it difficult to write about (I have written, and deleted, numerous paragraphs at this point).


What does “bad” mean? It means that the composition does not accept my values; and that I hardly understand what values it lives by.  It means that I am experiencing an instinct to kill it, perhaps with elegant dispatch or, probably more effective, by not writing about it at all.


The style of the book is unadorned and by most standards barely competent.


“Certainly,” said Christopher, and began the task of undoing the larger package while Margaret worked on the smaller one.


“I shall need to have these looked at by an expert,” said the official once the parcels were unwrapped.


Any author wedded to conventional standards of good writing would put a line through all that, replacing the “clumsy” or “laboured” presentation with something swift like “They unpacked the carpets”. But, of course, a radically different standard is at work here; one will only be able to grasp it when one finally sees that the original text is in fact “just right”.

The important thing, for instance, is not speed, but the relishing of certain conventions, the staler the better. The reader enjoys Christopher's polite but crisp "Certainly", and the companion-like, cheerful, unspoken compliance of his wife/pal. Hush, Middle England values are being promulgated. And then there is the joy of those awe-inspiring words "I shall need to have these looked at by an expert", words that the thrilled reader has waited all their lives to hear, the promise of some kind of official recognition, like possessing a really interesting illness.

I quite like this story, in which Christopher and Margaret represent the readers’ view of themselves, a worthy pair who are appalled by vulgar ostentation (reminiscent, in that respect, of any bonding pair in any Mills & Boon book). Christopher and Margaret are a childless couple who work hard, “pore over maps” before their holidays, are devoted to each other, and hope to land an authentic bargain that is strictly within their means. The story, such as it is, contrasts their own behaviour with that of Ray and Melody Kendall-Hume, a dreadful couple; vain, insensitive luxury-yacht-owners who are deservedly ripped off by an astute Turkish carpet dealer. Then the dealer (I fear, somewhat improbably) gives up a slice of his profit in order to reward Christopher and Margaret for their genuine appreciation of first-class carpets with what amounts to a fabulous gift. But my paraphrase is already starting to mislead and to seek relief in a certain irony; the improbability would not be noticed by Archer’s true audience. 


Here is a summary of the other stories; in the circumstances, much the most useful and eloquent thing I can supply.  1. A man punches his unfaithful mistress, accidentally killing her, but gets his rival put away for murder (TWIST: he withholds from us until the last page that he is the foreman of the jury). 2. An upright Nigerian, investigating corruption, tries to persuade a Swiss banker to betray the names of his account-holders (TWIST: he has stolen money himself and wants to open an account). 3. A young man is prevented by his authoritarian father from working at the car factory; he is forced to take a job at the Savoy and becomes one of the world’s leading chefs, thanks to the father whose firmness he now appreciates. 4. A man receives a foreign decoration (3rd Class); the quality of the decoration is poor, mere brass and glass, and because of a rivalry going back to childhood he is induced to pay Aspreys a fantastic sum to make a superior copy of the original; the foreign ruler spots this and adroitly grabs his fabulous copy by honouring him with an upgrade to 2nd Class – then he presents the purloined copy to the Queen (as 1st Class). 5. A female narrator describes how she ended up with a man called Roger (TWIST: we are “led up the garden path” because she is actually a cat). 6. After the war a former POW sticks up for the nicer of his Japanese camp officials and saves them from execution. They end up running an electronics empire and, when he becomes a Dean, shower his cathedral with donations. (TWIST: the ex-Major is only in charge of a factory, but the ex-Corporal turns out to be the company President). 7. A chess-player asks a gorgeous but apparently not very skilled newcomer back to his flat for games of double-or-quits chess – money on his side against stripping on hers. She thrashes him in the last game; she’s in fact a chess champion. 8. The President of the Wine Society is challenged by a sneering rich type to name some wines from his cellar; he gets them all wrong, but only because the butler has been swapping the wines with inferior stuff and passing on the originals to the local inn, whose winelist has a deservedly high reputation. 9. A man decides to kill another man who he thinks has seduced his wife (by faking a skiing accident). The attempt falls short of murder, but it turns out that his wife didn’t give in anyway (TWIST: at the ski resort she knew all along what her husband was up to). 10. Two men have a violent public quarrel at the golf club, and one sues the other for slander. It ends in an out-of-court settlement (TWIST: they are in league; it’s a tax fiddle.) 11. A Rabbi’s son tells in a letter how he fell in love with a woman who once mocked him; they are kept apart by their families; the woman dies in childbirth, her daughter soon after, and the man kills himself (TWIST: his father the rabbi is not reading the letter for the first time; he has read it every day for ten years.)   



[I have now read one of his full-length books, A Matter of Honour (1997). This is a much “better” book, that is to say a book I feel easier about admitting, because it conforms to a finely-honed popular genre, in this case the thriller/spy novel. The author of such a work is relatively insignificant, since most of its power is generated by tried and tested mythical images (for example, the amateur on the run who is unable to put his trust in his own side, only in complete strangers). The values in this book are identical to those embodied in Christopher and Margaret – surprisingly domestic, and reminiscent of the Daily Mail group of newspapers, who seem almost single-handedly responsible for the admiring blurbs produced by the publishers. If I wanted to explore the Archer world more closely, I think I’d begin (though of course I couldn’t end) with his writing about the arts. In the short story we learnt that the secret of a first-class Turkish carpet is the number of knots per square inch. In the novel, the genuine icon can be known by the tsar’s silver seal on the reverse. So aesthetic values can be recognized, as long as they have an objective bottom line, like a bank balance. In another scene we learn that expertise in Shakespeare means being able to recite the names of his 37 plays (while being tortured in the Russian embassy –- you make your escape uttering a triumphant crack about the Two Noble Kinsmen). But Archer (or his audience) is impatient with the intangibles of art. One of the novel’s characters, Robin Beresford, is a (female) double-bass player. A hefty woman, and the most impressive thing about her technique is that she knows how to carry the instrument. Robin is the most winning personality in the book, and we almost begin to think that "the RPO", like the British cycling team, are something to cheer for. But Archer can’t resist making a reassuring joke to remind us that, after all, the men in the orchestra are all nancy boys. Elsewhere, a professor Brunweld is resigned to spending three days in the Pentagon, away from his demanding family: “He would never have a better opportunity to settle down and read the collected works of Proust”. This is a joke against both academics and Proust (supposed a monumentally prolix bore who would take fully three days to read).]





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