Before I started Only Time Will Tell, I hadn’t read an Archer novel since I left school, a little over a decade ago.
While reading this tale of a young Harry Clifton growing up, from pre-school boy to seaman, I was reminded of the phenomenal power of Archer’s storytelling. Judging his work as a piece of plot-based writing, it isn’t great: there are moments of spectacular unlikelihood (the wedding being one that stands out); there are literary cliches of characters littered through the text, from a slightly-eccentric brave old war veteran, to a caddish owner of a sleazy nightclub; and there’s a sense that Archer’s politics bleeds through the whole book, from the plot line to his turn of phrase. Even the narrative structure is a little hackneyed, with parts of the plot narrated from different characters perspectives (with some repetition, just so the important clues to future events aren’t missed).
Despite all of that, this is gripping stuff – a real page-turner of a book. Archer has that rare gift of making the next step in the plot absolutely predictable, setting up a sort of loose dramatic irony, in which the reader can sense what’s coming next long before the characters can. There’s a sense, as with most of Archer’s novels, that each development in the plot is a well-worn device being redeployed in a new setting. This continuous fulfilment of expectations isn’t dull, though: like a great piece of music, the certainty of knowing what the next note must be adds to the enjoyment… though just an occasional confounding of expectation might heighten it a little.
There’s no author I’ve discovered that has the story-telling ability of Jeffrey Archer. This is a book that knows it isn’t a literary great, and has no pretensions to being one. This is a masterclass in “spinning a yarn” – and it’s a very enjoyable read.