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Review: Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer

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.

Best Kept Secret is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,011th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: The Sins of the Father by Jeffrey Archer

It’s not long since I reviewed the first in this series of books, Only Time Will Tell. If you recall, I gave that a rather positive rating, and praised the “phenomenal power of Archer’s storytelling”. I hope this demonstrates that, despite disliking the man, I’m not unduly averse to Archer’s writing, or even to this particular saga. But this second novel is terrible.

It seems to me that writing a series of novels is a difficult thing to do. There are, I think, two approaches. One can write a series of discrete plot-driven novels with connecting story arcs, whereby each novel – except perhaps the final few – stands alone, yet the sum of the novels is greater than its parts. Alternatively, one can write an epic story spanning several volumes, with small arcs satisfying the conditions of the multi-book format. What doesn’t work is splitting a continuous plot into several parts, with no obvious reason as to why the split has occurred.

This novel doesn’t stand alone, and has no more than a couple of chapter’s worth of plot in the context of the wider saga. Or perhaps 1.9 chapters, given that the single thread defining this novel is left incomplete. As a result, this book has more exceptionally dull filler than any other I’ve read.

I know that people are generally advised to “write about what you know”, but surely no-one can have failed to have groaned when a Jeffrey Archer protagonist wrote a prison diary. Nor when the same protagonist starts armed forces training. Nor when his first book sells wildly in North America, allowing a lucrative deal to be sealed for its UK distribution. Nor when a character becomes an MP. Nor when the plot moves to the House of Lords. It’s as though Archer has taken Private Eye’s Jeremy Longbow as inspiration rather than ridicule.

On a few occasions in the book, Archer seems to forget his own characters. One particularly memorable example comes towards the end, when the protagonist requires an explanation of the term “free vote”, despite displaying a voracious appetite for news and some interest in politics. Initially, I assumed that this was merely a badly deployed literary device used to explain an important plot point, but as the whole exchange was unnecessary for the plot, one can only assume that it’s another bit of filler.

The one advantage this volume has over its predecessor is that the repetitive structure, and the odd affliction of only the first chapter in each section being written in the first person, has been dropped. All other faults of the first volume remain: the ludicrous co-incidences, the politics bleeding through into the plot, the clichéd characters, and so on. Archer has promised “at least” five books in this series: at this rate, I can’t imagine there will be many readers left by the fifth.

The Sins of the Father is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 1,871st post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer

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.

Only Time Will Tell is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 1,806th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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