DISCLAIMER: Love him or hate him, almost everyone who knows Jeffrey Archer’s name has an opinion about him. It was a shock when I was given the chance to interview the smarmy rogue himself, even though it involved passing a suitability test and having to fly to Singapore as the smug git was too important to be interviewed by phone. An experience not to be missed. Hard questions in hand, it was deeply frustrating to find how charming the charismatic “Jeff,” as he likes to be called, was. He disarmed me with the skill of a fast-talking dodgy geezer who talks you out of your hard earned cash, whilst trying to fondle your wife.
To say that disgraced politician cum author, Lord Jeffrey Archer, is a controversial character is an understatement.
He has been imprisoned for perjury and perverting the court of justice; breached parole conditions; stolen coats in Canada; been accused of insider trading and ripping off charities; and was implicated in Simon Mann’s planned coup in Equatorial Guinea. The list goes on.
In 2001, it was proved that he had won £500,000 (34m baht) damages in his 1987 libel suit against The Star newspaper – which had reported that he had paid the prostitute Monica Coghlan for sex – by lying in court. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment, of which he served two.
While life behind bars was tough, the author, who by then had published 15 bestselling novels, was quick to put the old Archer alchemy into action.
Through his daily journals, in which he wrote one million words and some 1,100 pages, he documented the depths of his psychological morass, his contemplation of suicide, the gnarly realities of being locked up with hardened criminals and murderers.
The end result was his critically acclaimed Prison Diaries trilogy. However, for Archer today, the real acid test is False Impression, his first work of fiction published since his release from prison in 2003.
“I believe it’s a comeback book,” he says. “You come out of prison and they’re all going to look at the next book, more carefully than if it was just the ‘next’ book.
“Will they say has he lost it? Can he do it any longer? Or, is it better?”
This is not the first time that writing has been offered Archer redemption.
In 1974 the 34-year-old Conservative MP for Louth was almost bankrupted when he lost his £500,000 (37m baht) investment in the Canadian company Aquablast. While he resigned his seat in parliament, Archer was not prepared to wallow in self-pity. As work opportunities dried up, he decided to pen his first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.
“I wrote Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less because I didn’t want to sit around doing nothing, feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “It was a hell of shock when it started selling the way it did, it really was. I didn’t realise people would pay for that.”
With up to 25,000 copies a month being sold, the book’s success marked the first steps of Archer’s financial comeback. His next novel, the blockbusting Kane and Abel, confirmed the fact that he had captured the popular imagination, cementing his position as serious contender in the global publishing scene.
Today Archer has 17 novels under his belt and 120 million copies sold worldwide.
He most closely relates to Simon Curslake, the key character in his novel A First Amongst Equals. Why? “Well, he was a young Conservative wanting to become prime minister who failed,” he laughs.
But is the scurrilous rogue a new man? Did prison issue him a wakeup call? Has he been reformed?
Well, the process of securing an interview with the author revealed traces of his trademark arrogance. He could only be interviewed face-to-face in Singapore, a CV of journalistic experience and questions were required beforehand, and a list of no go areas – the trial, its verdict and the world of politics – was provided.
It was disarming, then, to discover that the infamous “Jeffrey” (as he prefers to be called) appears to be a charming man.
Sitting in the living room of his suite at the opulent Raffles Hotel, he explains how False Impression demanded his “utter dedication”, resulting in two years hard work.
“1,000 hours, two years. 1,000 hours of writing and probably 1,000 hours of thinking; and 800 of the first 1,000 hours of thinking is done before you write a single word.”
The novel combines a criminal conspiracy, a Van Gogh, a ruthless assassin, and one of the defining events of the new millennium, 9/11. It follows 18 days in the life of the story’s protagonist Anna Petrescu – a Romanian art expert who works as an advisor for banker Bryce Fenston (also a Romanian).
However, Fenston is not your average banker. While cold-heartedness may be fait accompli, or even a prerequisite of his profession, this character’s rapid rise to riches is underpinned by his purposeful bankrupting of clients with private art collections as a method of acquisitioning their collections.
Further intrigue is added by his murky past, connections to the Romania’s heinous former-dictator Ceausescu, and three brutal art-related murders that are being investigated by FBI agent Jack Delaney (an Irish-American who imaginatively still gets Irish Stew cooked by his mother every week).
The catalyst for the book was a New York Times article that reported that from the 100 or so people who remained missing from 9/11, the police thought 50 had used the tragedy as an opportunity to slide of the map for personal or criminal reasons.
“I got it into my head that that was an interesting way of disappearing. If my girl wanted to reverse something that was evil, and discovered that she was missing presumed dead, she’d have a three-day start on her adversaries. I just thought that was an interesting way for a kick off.”
Weaving the likes of Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” into the plot was a joy for Archer – a man who used to give partygoers to his London flat directions to the bathroom as, “Past the Picasso and left at the Matisse”. Travelling to the countries included in False Impression – USA, Romania, England and Canada – was also an essential part of crafting the book.
Archer says a good novel combines good storytelling with good writing. “It must say to the reader, I’ve got to find out what happens next.”
Getting the balance right between pace, and detail and complexity, is also key. “Speed is everything, but then again, it mustn’t be so fast that you lose the detail or lose the story.”
So why does this book – which draws on three decades of studying art, first-hand experience of the murky criminal underworld, and two years of work, end up being so unmoving? The end result is a book with characters who are paper-thin stereotypes, and a plot so predictable it would take a seriously heavy dose of Rohypnol to prevent a reader from guessing what comes next
Suspension of disbelief is often an important component of enjoying a book, but there has to be limits, and False Impression goes beyond those limits.
Take Krantz, the Romanian gymnast turned contract killer, a character Archer is particularly proud of, as an example.
The former bodyguard to Ceausescu favoured, if not only, method of execution is to slash her victims’ throats. Without wanting to be gruesome, this is a clumsy, awkward way of killing. Blood from a cut carotid artery spurts up to 10 metres covering the assailant and the whole scene in evidence. Furthermore, killing people the same each way time makes it easier to trace the killer.
Krantz also avoids detection by stealing a new mobile phone everyday from which she calls her boss on a number that only she has, destroying said phone immediately after the call. Here you have to ask, just how undetectable would this method be if a phone company did the standard thing and checked what was the last number was dialled on every stolen or lost phone?
Bearing all this in mind, why is it so hard to put False Impression down?
Despite his clumsy construction, Archer has a deft ability to hook readers in and keep them turning the pages. Though, he himself can’t quite put his finger how manages to pull this off.
“Do you know, if I could tell you I would, but I haven’t got a clue,” he says, resting his chin on his hand and furrowing his brow. “I try very hard to make you turn the page. I try very hard to stick in stuff that will interest you and I always try at the end of a chapter to demand you to move on.”
In real life Archer is charismatic. He is an operator, a man you can’t help feeling will be try to nick your wallet or fondle your wife, whilst keeping a strait face. But then he did use to boast that when he was elected as an MP in 1969, he was the youngest British Member of Parliament ever at 29. He wasn’t even the youngest at the time, not forgetting Pitt the Younger who was elected prime minister in 1783 aged 24.
Perhaps it is this skill that makes him such a successful author, giving him the ability to keep readers “moving on” regardless of the plot.
Master or not, Jeffrey Archer is back, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee, that the real false impression he is creating is the one of himself.