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The Sins of the Father by Jeffrey ArcherArcher Enhances his Stature as Masterly Weaver of Tales with Compelling Second Volume of Clifton Chronicles

The Sins of the Father by Jeffrey Archer

  The Clifton Chronicles, of which this is Book Two, is an ambitious five volume project in which Archer traces the adventures of the Clifton family through a period of 100 years.

  And this volume asserts its status as a crime thriller by featuring a truly graphic account of a violent clash between a man and a woman, in which the man, with murder in his heart, berates the woman with racist insults. In a surprise twist, there are two deaths.

  Of course we know that Jeffrey Archer paints with a broad and generous brush. And he is uniquely blessed as a writer in that he can draw on his own experience of a richly diverse life, firstly as a Member of Parliament for several years and later a member of the House of Lords as well as a jailbird for two years, in order to bring verisimilitude to his work. What’s more, he is a successful author whose work is read across the globe.

  So it is no surprise that all of these strands of life experience are woven into the rich fabric of his account of the life and times of a family across several generations and through many international crises such as wars and political upheaval.

  There are some Archer trademarks. One is the posh cad, a contemptible character who abuses his lofty social status in the British pantheon of class. Another is the dynamic child of the slums whose native talent and hard work enable him or her to ascend the ladder of success.

  We met examples of these types in As the Crow Flies.

  They surface again in this volume. And now, the cad is Hugo Barrington, the son of Sir Walter Barrington, who has made his fortune from the Barrington Shipping Line.

  And the other trademark character is a young lad from a rough background, Harry Clifton, who is rescued from obscurity by the fact that he has a pure young singing voice which gains him entree to good schooling.

  But first, in case you haven’t read Only Time Will Tell, the first in this five book series, let me bring you up to speed.

  Only days before Britain declares war on Germany, Harry Clifton, hoping to escape the consequences of long-buried family secrets, and forced to accept that his desire to marry Emma Barrington will never be fulfilled, has joined the Merchant Navy. But his ship is sunk in the Atlantic by a German U-boat. An American cruise liner rescues a handful of sailors, among them Harry and the third officer, an American named Tom Bradshaw. When Bradshaw dies in the night, Harry seizes on the chance to escape his tangled past and assumes his identity.

  But on landing in America, he quickly learns the mistake he has made, when he discovers what is awaiting Bradshaw in New York.

  Now, in Book Two, no one back in Bristol knows that Harry is alive. So when Emma, his fiancee, visits Maisie, Harry’s mother, and notices an envelope addressed in Harry’s handwriting, she immediately assumes he is alive and in America. She travels to New York following Tom Bradshaw’s trail and finds out that Harry was conned into serving another man’s sentence by a conniving lawyer. But when she isn’t allowed to meet Harry in prison, she starts to despair, turning to a great aunt settled in New York for help.

  Meanwhile, Giles Barrington, Harry’s best friend and Emma’s brother, upon hearing that Harry was buried at sea, retreats into a shell, determined to keep away from the war. But he overhears his grandfather refer to him as a coward, and he signs up. He is assigned to Tobruk, where he is captured and sent to a German POW camp.

  If Archer had been making movies in Hollywood in the 1930s he would surely have invented the cliff-hanger, in which each episode in a serial leaves the audience hyper ventilating as the heroine is about to topple off the Empire State building, or fall over a precipice, or tumble into the jaws of a crocodile.

  Archer’s technique in achieving this kind of tension is impeccable. Virtually every chapter leaves you panting for more.

  However, even Jeffrey Archer can stumble now and then, and in my view he does when he describes how a young woman is enjoying a night out with her fiancé when he goes off with a friend to get drunk and leaves her alone. A stranger comes wandering along, smacks her on her backside and what do you know, he takes her to bed in a nearby hotel room. When she wakes up he is gone. She proceeds to marry her fiancé and a son is born—Harry. Is he the son of the labourer his mother married, or of the rake who bedded her instantly on first encounter? Such casual sex strains credibility, in the more straitlaced era in which it occurs. But the identity of Harry’s progenitor becomes a central issue.

  Oh yes, isn’t this another Archer trademark? So it is, remember As the Crow Flies? -- when another leading lady had casual sex with a rotter and a child ensued and was brought up with another identity?

  Anyway, it is a dynamic plot device.

  Now let’s look at how Archer draws upon his own life experience in this tangled and dramatic tale.

  Firstly, young Harry is jailed in America and while behind bars he meets a con man, a sometime publisher. Harry occupies his time by writing a diary. His friend gets out of jail but shows interest in Harry’s work---and publishes it as his own. A Prison Diary becomes a bestseller while Harry still languishes in prison.

  There are some fascinating exchanges here, when Harry’s girlfriend confronts the conman and his publisher and we gain insight to the possible criminal permutations of the publishing world.

  Now wait a minute. Didn’t Archer spend two years in jail and write three Prison Diary books? And publish them perfectly legitimately, of course.

  Yes he did, and to digress for a moment I must say that I found the diaries entirely absorbing and revelatory of what kind of human being Jeffrey Archer actually is.

  Archer was sent to jail for fraud, a questionable charge, with a clearly absurdly disproportionate prison sentence. Archer writes about his time in jail without self pity and with an astute and compassionate eye for his fellow inmates. Only occasionally does he lift, briefly, the veil on his own emotions, when we can glimpse his despair at being locked up with murderers and drug addicts in an atmosphere fraught with foul language and brutish behaviour.

  The diaries are literary gold and they testify to the author’s refined sensibility and genuine compassion. They evoked my sincere admiration.

  Now for the third aspect of Archer’s own experience. A major issue in the book is the question of titular inheritance, and here the author takes us into the House of Commons and the House of Lords and we perceive the splendour of traditional procedure, observed by an actual participant in this kind of historic ritual.

  But if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to buy the next volume, Best Kept Secret, the third in this fascinating display of a novelist’s artistry. It is due out early in the New Year.—Prospero.

 

 Rating: Five glittering stars 5-Star Rating

The Underground ManNow a New Generation can Enjoy Ross Macdonald, a Master Novelist in the Crime Thriller Genre

The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

  Penguin are re-releasing five of the works of Ross Macdonald in their Modern Classics series, thus alerting a new generation of readers to a treasure trove of American thrillers, written with a literary artistry which has all but vanished from the genre in recent years.

  Don’t equate artistry with flaccidity. Macdonald’s tales are hardboiled, his characters strongly and sharply drawn, their conflicts hot-blooded.

But he writes about them with such skill that a character is impaled by a few words, a mood is captured, an emotion defined, an action frozen. For example:

  “He nodded, then he cried. He nodded and cried, nodded and cried like a human pump.”

  “As she looked at me her eyes misted over like cold windows.”

  “She was pretty enough to make me conscious that I hadn’t shaved.”

  “She went into deep thought. It sat prettily on her, softening the anxious angularity of her posture.”

  “He felt resentful and betrayed like a sailor who has come to the edge of a flat world.”

  Macdonald’s private eye is Lew Archer. He is a lonely man, emotionally scarred but enduringly sensitive to others’ hurt. He is an engaging and endearing figure.

  The Underground Man deals with the abduction of a young boy, murder, betrayal, envy, the arrogance of the monied, the despair of the abandoned. In other words, what happens to people.

  As the eminent critic Malcolm Forbes has observed: “Macdonald matters because of his ability to accurately depict the dire and dastardly things humankind does to itself and infuse them with a glorious poetic sensibility.”

  I relished Lew Archer when I first encountered him as the series ran to 1976 and I read him now with the warmth and intensified appreciation of one who meets a well loved friend after a long hiatus. In fact, as I read, the plot becomes subservient to the anticipation of the next verbal grenade to detonate with elucidation, or the phrase with resonates with insight.

  Of course, when you enter Macdonald’s America of the 1970s it’s a trifle startling to find that marriage matters and a dollar tip is generous. It is startling in a different way to encounter conversation which is lucid, courteous yet vibrant. Yet the human tensions his novels depict with such flair and empathy are timeless and universal.

  *Ross Macdonald is a pen name for Kenneth Millar who was born in California in 1915 and educated in Canada and at the University of Michigan where he also taught. He published his first novel The Dark Tunnel in 1944. He served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America and was given their Grand Master Award as well as achieving the Mystery Writers of Great Britain’s Silver Dagger Award. He died in 1983. -- Prospero.

 

 Rating: Five distinguished stars 5-Star Rating

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