A rollicking ride

A rollicking ride

A rollicking ride

Master novelist Jeffrey Archer has returned with the fourth book in the Clifton Chronicles: ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’. In this riveting read, the plot thickens and ends with another nail-biting cliffhanger, writes S Nanda Kumar.

Jeffrey Archer fans can rejoice — the fourth volume of the Clifton Chronicles is out. After Only Time Will Tell, The Sins Of The Father, and Best Kept Secret, this latest one is called Be Careful What You Wish For — well-worn phrases that this master storyteller has given special meaning to for his legion of admirers. This tale resumes at the cliffhanger where Archer had ended the previous book.

And it is full-speed ahead from the word go. The book is the usual Archer page-turner, written tightly, keeping you riveted. It reminds one of the serialised fiction by authors used to increase the readership of magazines and newspapers, right from Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many others. 

In today’s world of television serials and end-of-season cliffhangers, it is right out there, making you want more. Just when you are about to lean back, thinking everything is going along swimmingly, there is a twist in the tale that has you leaning forward and plunging back into the roller-coaster ride involving the Barringtons, and their arch enemy, Don Martinez. This book takes you along further into what happens in the world of the Barrington Shipping Company, with the now-familiar figures of Emma Clifton, the thoroughly corruptible Major Alex Fisher, Giles Barrington and others trying to keep the company afloat. 

Once again, Archer has not hesitated to bring in many elements from earlier novels — most noticeably carefully plotted revenge from Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, the underdog fighting powerful, unscrupulous villain from Kane & Abel, a peep into the nitty-gritty of British politics and 10 Downing Street from First Among Equals. This was the flavour he had maintained in the earlier Clifton Chronicles. Why not borrow a leaf or two from the winning combinations of earlier novels, Archer must have asked himself, and he certainly got an overwhelming response from readers — every book has been a bestseller here in India. 

What is remarkable about this raconteur is that he still manages to keep you glued to his books after all these years and after 26 novels — although you know it is a typical Archer formula with twists and sudden U-turns, with his most brilliant trademark, the last punchline of every significant chapter that still takes your breath away. The characters continue to be superficial and far from well etched out, unlike his early works, where each one could be clearly visualised, but it hardly comes in the way of keeping the accelerator pedal firmly floored as you turn the pages. This time, the character of Cedric Hardcastle, a safe and cautious Yorkshire banker, stands out. The vicious and catty ‘Lady’ Virginia continues to evoke anger from the reader for her heartless and thoroughly selfish machinations.

Archer has also subtly brought out the period in which this book is set — 1957 to 1964 — in the very manner the plot unfolds — and the lack of modern communications technology that all of us take for granted today. Most notably, the cellphone, the computer and the Internet. It is refreshing to be reminded of the times when people sat next to an old-fashioned telephone, waiting for it to ring, or watched railway stations to make sure certain villains departed by train to their destinations, and quickly ran to public booths, coins clutched in their palms, to call in and report. 

People cut off from streaming news from the stock market because they were in places with no telephone lines, tense train journeys to make it to the other end on time — pure basic fun. The modern villain would have simply kept track with his smart phone and the Internet, and ordered in a helicopter that would help him rush in to foil the good guys’ plans — where’s the fun in that?

So, it is not just good, old-fashioned settings, but good, old-fashioned fiction writing with tightly plotted points that allows Archer to lead you by the nose through labyrinthine loops and bends, because that way lies a simple rollicking tale of the good guys battling and matching wits with the bad guys. Intellectual snobs might dismiss all this as predictable and formulaic, but who cares? We are back into the world where it all boils down to presence of mind, rigorous homework, wits and determination, with nothing else to aid you apart from the old-fashioned telephone, the aeroplane, the automobile and the railway train.

There were at least two places in this book that left me hoping that a certain character made it through safely, and that something terrible does not happen — which means it isn’t only writing to a formula — it simply means that this master storyteller has not lost his nimble touch. As the book drew to a close, I deliberately started slowing down the reading pace, because I did not want it to end — so difficult to do when the book was thundering ahead — another good sign.

But end it does, at yet another spectacular cliffhanger. And Archer aficionados will have no choice but to wait till 2015 for the fifth Clifton Chronicle. Maybe we all wish he wrote more than a book a year, despite the warning in the title of this latest book. You can perhaps hear Archer chuckling in delight, but I think he has earned the right to do so. 

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