Best Kept Secret is the third book in Jeffrey Archer’s series of indeterminate length, The Clifton Chronicles. I reviewed the first volume, Only Time Will Tell, in September last year and gave it a broadly positive four-star review. In October, I gave the second book, The Sins of the Father, a broadly negative two-star review. Between then and now, Archer has hinted that his quintology might just become a septology or even an octology.
This is a bit surprising, because it feels to me like he’s lost interest. He’s now all but abandoned the idea of multiple intersecting plots told from multiple points of view, and is using a pretty straight narrative. He’s abandoned the exploration of different social settings, contrasting the working class Cliftons with the wealthy Barringtons, and keeps the plot firmly rooted in wealth throughout. He’s abandoned many of the most interesting characters, paying only the briefest visit to the protagonist’s mother, for example. He’s abandoned detailed characterisation, relying on new stereotypical new characters about as deep as the paper on which they’re printed. And he seems to have lost all enthusiasm for driving the plot forward.
This volume picks up precisely where the last left off, and hence starts by resolving the inane cliffhanger about a House of Lords vote which, as discussed at length elsewhere, could never have occurred in the first place. The resolution isn’t immediate. It’s strung out for a quite ludicrous amount of time. And after that, we’re launched back into a tale of increasingly unlikeable people being portrayed as saints, and fighting off attacks from people portrayed as two-dimensional villains, against backgrounds with which Archer is personally very familiar – politics and the law, in the main. The villains’ cause is, as ever, aided by utterly moronic decisions by the saints. But, after things hang in the balance for a while, the resolution favours the saints. Mix in some filler passages with plot of no consequence, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.
In my last review of this series, I suggested that books in a series should be either: self-contained, with interesting broader arcs between different types volumes; or part of an epic tale, with smaller arcs satisfying the conditions of the publishing format. This volume, even more than the last, fails to fill either of those conditions. There’s barely any semblance left of an arc reaching back to the first volume, and there are no satisfying arcs within this volume alone. Once again, the amount of plot in this volume that actually contributes to moving the story of the series forward is no more than could be summarised in a couple of paragraphs.
Each of my previous reviews of this series has singled out a ludicrous incident within the plot to demonstrate my dissatisfaction. This time, I’m spoilt for choice. I’ll have to plump for the court case in which a will is challenged. According to Archer, the case is on a knife-edge, with the judge unable to decide whether to place more weight on the opinion of a doctor who never met the writer of the will but contests that ill people can never make wills, or a doctor who actually examined the patient. That Archer spins this out for so long, and comes up with an suitably insane resolution in the form of a crossword, just about out-crazies the brazen way in which he adds a bizarre cameo appearance by Princess Margaret… in Argentina. I’m not even joking.
And yet, even that isn’t the craziest thing about this increasingly infuriating series. No, the most insane thing is that, despite it all, I know I’m going to buy the next volume this time next year. And, in the end, that probably says more about this series than any review I can write. And yet, I still can’t bring myself to recommend it.
The infuriating cliffhanger at the end of this volume, which is considerably less well introduced and for which the resolution is many times clearer than in the previous volumes, only adds to my suspicion that the series would be improved by the story skipping a decade or so. I think that would give some hope of reinvigorating the plot, and maybe Archer’s enthusiasm for it. I’ll live in hope.