- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

When "Sons of Fortune," Jeffrey Archer's 11th novel, hit the bookshelves one British wag grumbled that the bestselling author and disgraced peer should be charged with "crimes against literature." But looking for the sublime pleasures of literature is not why one reads Jeffrey Archer novels, and there is no crime in that.
Mr. Archer's books are, for the most part, comfortably predictable commodities. One looks forward to each new one, knowing that as night follows day, there will be sex, murder and politics strung out along signature plot lines that yet twist and surprise. Sometimes, for good measure, readers are treated to a thinly- or barely-disguised troublemaker from real life (a Ted Kennedy stand-in ambled about in "Shall We Tell the President," the heinous Saddam Hussein menaced in "Honor Among Thieves," while in "The Fourth Estate," Rupert Murdoch and the late Robert Maxwell played themselves). But always the action is fast, the footing is sure, the characters silky smooth, but never very deep, and that's not a crime either.
Set in Connecticut, this story revolves around Fletcher and Nat, twins separated at birth (yes, separated at birth) by a well intentioned nanny. They go on to live separate lives in two different families with mostly different outcomes. Reminiscent of Mr. Archer's blockbuster "Kane and Abel," in which two men born on the same day collide, here one boy grows up to be a banker and a Republican, the other a lawyer and a Democrat.
Until the point where Fletcher and Nat run against each other for governor at the book's end there are enough subplots and secrets to keep things interesting (who gets the girl?, who killed the husband?, who wins the election?). As for the prospect of getting to know the real Mr. Archer (a no-no for critics under usual circumstances), it seems to be all here for the taking. There is not a single angle in the novel that cannot be paired with a parallel circumstance in the author's life.
Mr. Archer begins the book at the hospital where Nat and Fletcher are separated. (Mr. Archer had an older brother named Jeffrey who was put up for adoption and later called David). The fictional brothers grow up to attend two different tony prep schools, Hotchkiss and Taft, and Ivy League universities Harvard and Yale, becoming pillars of their respective communities. (Mr. Archer went to Oxford and was elected to Parliament and elevated to the House of Lords.) One of the boys gets himself in a byzantine financial scandal and then is accused of murder (Mr. Archer had his money troubles and committed a crime.)
Admittedly, this is not subtle character building, but the characters, wooden as they are, somehow appeal. Even the whole prep school-Ivy League trajectory, though cliched, works. And the parallels are indisputable, right? So, therefore, with all the opportunity for armchair psychoanalyzing, getting to know the real Mr. Archer should be a slam dunk, right? Well, in short, wrong.
Over the years Mr. Archer has shown himself to be nothing if not a remarkable master of survival. After being elected to the House of Commons in 1967, he invested his life savings in a Canadian cleaning firm that went belly up after management fraud and embezzlement. Facing a perilous financial situation of his own, Mr. Archer decided to write a book that was based on the tumultuous circumstances of his life. That book, "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less," became a big hit in the United States and led to others that, like "Sons of Fortune," took up themes similar to his life's upheavals in a tantalizing way.
Alongside his flourishing literary career, his political career showed great promise when Margaret Thatcher appointed him deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He had to resign a year later when it was alleged that he offered money to a prostitute, an allegation which provoked a successful libel case, later turned upside down when the testimony of a friend led to the current charges of perjury.
Mr. Archer is a seasoned storyteller. The plot here indisputably engages. The central tragedy involving Nat's son is somewhat implausible and could have been strengthened, and the one villain in the piece, Ralph Elliot, is much more tenacious in his evildoing than seems believable. Still, the author is to be commended for his grasp of things American: Daniel Webster, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. In 500 pages and 40 years or so, there is a lot of ground to cover. Mr. Archer gets away with some shorthand but it does not detract. And in the end, when nobility triumphs and evil is vanquished a reader can cheer, not least of all because another Archer novel has stayed true to pattern.
A for getting to know the author, forget about it. Mr. Archer wrote this book two years into a 4-year sentence for "perjury and perverting the course of justice." A public aware of these circumstances could believe that in addition to the usual pleasures of an Archer novel there might be glimpses into the interior life, if not the prison cell, of the audacious, arrogant, appealing, scandal-plagued, maddening Mr. Archer himself, but that turns out not to be the case.
The closest readers get to knowing Mr. Archer is from a clue dropped in a domestic scene that comes a little over halfway through the book. Nat, the successful banker and his Korean wife have this discussion with their friend Julia about their son:

"Julia, I'm glad you're here, because Luke needs to consult you on a moral dilemma."

"A moral dilemma? I didn't think you started worrying about those until after puberty."

"No, this is far more serious than sex, and I don't know the answer."

"So what's the question?"

"Is it possible to paint a masterpiece of Christ and the Virgin Mary if you are a murderer?"

"It's never seemed to worry the Catholic Church," said Julia. "Several of Caravaggio's finest works are hanging in the Vatican …"

A cri de coeur? Probably not. Perjury, after all, isn't murder. Mr. Archer is no Carravagio. And good thrillers have their place.
By Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin's, $29.95, 503 pages

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