McCrum on Jeffrey Archer

The Eleventh Commandment
Harper Collins £16.99, pp 340

In the great unwritten novel of contemporary English life to which newspaper readers subscribe, the outrageous character known as 'Jeffrey Archer' remains uniquely compelling: a figure to whom perhaps only the genius of a Dickens or a Thackeray could do justice. And herein lies the irony. Nothing in the collected works of 'Jeffrey Archer' begins to equal the technicolour vibrancy of the author's own life, as if having invested so much energy in himself, the writer has nothing left for his fiction. As a citizen, 'Jeffrey Archer' has been repeatedly exposed as an heroic embellisher of the truth. As a politician, he is known as a loose cannon, yet he remains a prospect as Mayor of London. Finally, as a thriller writer, he is celebrated for having received some of the worst reviews in the history of English fiction.

For a long time, the various strands in the career of 'Jeffrey Archer' have been kept more or less distinct, occupying, so to speak, one branch of civil or political or literary police at a time. Now, with The Eleventh Commandment, Archer's latest self-styled 'Number One best seller', these three strands have become briefly and tantalisingly woven together. Perhaps because he has let it be known that he will stop writing if he's elected Mayor of London, the new volume has aroused widespread literary critical comment. Peter Preston, writing in our sister paper, the Guardian, observed that to call Archer's characters cardboard was 'to insult the British packaging industry'. Elsewhere, the critics have ransacked their thesauruses to find synonyms for 'turgid', 'leaden' and 'implausible'.

Generally speaking, Archer has been convicted for literary offences towards which on the evidence of the work itself he seems indifferent. Plot? A CIA hitman 'turned' by a deranged Russian President to threaten the life of his American counterpart, a far-fetched imbroglio which is itself the upshot of a bungled turf war between the Oval Office and Foggy Bottom. In short, preposterous. Character? The CIA man, a 'professional's professional' and 'devoted family man' who is so close to his wife of 28 years that he has never, for a moment, been called to account by the faithful Maggie for the palpable mysteries of his working life. In short, ludicrous.

I could go on. I have never actually shot fish in a barrel, but this is presumably the lit crit equivalent. It is inappropriate to charge a man with reckless driving whose only experience of the road comes from a virtual reality video-game arcade. And yet, if the new Jeffrey Archer is risible, it does provide one invaluable thing: a riveting guide to the mind of The Man Who Would Be Mayor.

Indeed, if Ken Livingstone could bring himself to, he should consider handing out free copies to every voter in the Greater London mayoral constituency. The electors might be astonished at what they find.

They would discover, first of all, that our Mayor-in-Waiting is more than a little puritanical, especially when it comes to alcohol. Archer's readers may not be gripped by his story or his style, but they will be transfixed, as I was, by the dismal parade of resolute teetotallers who infest the narrative. Does a drop of alcohol ever pass anyone's lips? Does it, hell!

Apart from a few sips of airline champagne, we face a gruesome sequence of acqua minerale (sic), Perrier, still water, and Diet Coke. If, explicitly, the eleventh commandment begins: 'Thou shalt not be caught...'; implicitly, it ends: '... in the bar.' Next, we discover that our Mayor-in-Waiting has an obsessive fascination with time. With schedules. With airline departure gates. Whatever else we get from Mayor Archer at least we can expect the city's transport will run on time. Thus: 'At 7.40, he boarded Swissair Flight 839 to Geneva. The flight took just under two hours ... He readjusted his watch to 10.30 as the wheels of the aircraft touched the ground.'

'Jeffrey Archer' is also, apparently, a master of disguise, a devotee of multiple personalities. Fitzgerald, the central character, possesses a bewildering number of plausible aliases. He has only to pop into the Swissair executive shower to transform himself from Theodore Lilystrand from Stockholm into Piet de Villiers from South Africa. If you voted for this man as mayor you could not be sure you were getting, so to speak, Archer or 'Archer'.

Finally, The Eleventh Commandment reveals 'Jeffrey Archer' to be whimsically detached from the office to which he aspires. The solitary reference to London's mayoral contest on page 102 tells us that the likely candidates, himself included, 'meant nothing' to his hero.

Ken Livingstone, please note.

Robert McCrum is the Observer's literary editor: robert.mccrum@observer. co . uk

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Robert McCrum

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