Saturday, April 03, 2004


Jeffrey Archer

THE inimitable Jeffrey Archer's unravelling of an intricately-woven web of stories in A Twist in the Tale results in an unpredictable, albeit lightweight, mosaic of twelve short stories which bursts forth with tension and exercises a vice-like grip on the reader. Once again, Archer's mastery of the dramatic form, his ear for the way people talk and his sardonic wit make the book an interesting read. One thing is for sure, though, he is one of those very good writers for whom boredom is a cardinal transgression and who seems unable to put his foot wrong.

After churning out a spate of bestselling novels, like Kane and Abel, The Prodigal Daughter, Shall We Tell The President?, First Among Equals, A Matter of Honour and Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, Archer has come up with his second collection of short stories; the stories here are nicely paced and neatly concluded, with characters and scenarios that leap from the pages with a vibrancy and raw intensity seldom found in short stories of such nature. The whole collection does not totter on tedium; neither does it lack coherence nor structure; in fact, the pleasure of this work lies in its depiction of the ordinary and mundane.

This time, a murky broth of marital tryst, Machiavellian cunning, guile and duplicity, promiscuity, sexual peccadilloes, fraud, corruption, murder, treachery and webs of cunning deceit are all grist to Archer's story-spinning mill. Nothing is what it seems to be and the unexpected never happens at all. The tension never relaxes but keeps on mounting in most of the stories and one reads ravenously, dreading the moment when it all comes to an end. What is more, the conclusions catch you unaware and never cease to surprise with their savage twists.

In “The Perfect Murder”, a philandering husband calls unexpectedly on his mistress and sees another man leaving her apartment. Accusing her of unfaithfulness, an altercation ensues. In a moment of unbridled rage, he clenches his fist and takes a swipe at her. She dies of a broken jaw and lacerations of the skull. He leaves the scene unobserved and tips off Scotland Yard so that the other man is detained and charged with his mistress' murder. Has he committed “the perfect murder”? Indeed, a tantalising and skilfully contrived appetiser to A Twist in the Tale. From this moment, Archer has the reader in his grip and under his spell.

Consider also a touchingly full-bodied Jewish-Gentile love affair in “Christina Rosenthal” with complex emotional consequences where secrets of the past can change the pattern of the future forever; a heated altercation in a golf clubhouse bar between two cronies in “The Loopholes”; a rivalry rooted in a childhood obsession with eating cornflakes and collecting the top flaps of cornflake boxes in “Not the Real Thing”; a sexy game of chess with an equally sexy stranger in “Checkmate” where the stakes are far, far higher than money; and the ritual of wine-tasting with a bizarre flourish in “Honour Among Thieves”. These are some of the better vignettes found in this marvellously entertaining collection of short stories, a collection that whets your appetite and leaves you gasping for more.

With Archer's usual display of panache, humour and tremendous imaginative strength, each story is tightly packed with more richness and humanness than many good writers manage to achieve in a single novel. His observation of human quirks and eccentricities is acute, and some of his insights are unusually penetrating. His storytelling flows with ingenious fluidity so that the tales and the characters that people the landscape of his vivid imagination seem to sparkle and come alive, all of which makes this collection consistently entertaining.

A Twist in the Tale is a witty and immensely varied collection of short stories well worth putting together. Much of the collection is a joy to read; it is worth reading for its prose alone, which is refreshingly crisp, taut, understated and peppered with irony, and a slightly twisted sense of humour. Archer's sort of prose has a light touch, the hint of a sparkle and an underlying seriousness as evident in his first collection of short stories, A Quiver Full of Arrows. The narrative thread that runs through the fabric of the whole collection is taut, and the tales Archer spin are intriguing, bristling with just enough plot twists and ironies, savage wit and sharp sensory details to hold the reader's interest. Though, indeed, a spare, slender volume, A Twist in the Tale is imbued with excitements and surprises, mirth and wickedness.