Even before a person begins to read Jeffrey Archer’s third installment of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, BEST KEPT SECRET he already has the reader in the palm of his hands. The previous novel, THE SINS OF THE FATHER ends with a voting deadlock in the House of Lords with the Lord Chancellor set to cast the deciding vote that will determine who will be the heir to the Barrington family title and fortune and whether Harry Clifton and Emma Barrington are half sister and brother. Clifton wants no part of the Barrington wealth and just wants to make Emma his bride and would be overjoyed if the Lord Chancellor would bequeath the Barrington family title and all of its trappings to Emma’s brother Giles.
Once the final announcement is made Archer reverts to the approach, he employed in the first two novels in the series. Archer allows the major characters to explore their aspirations, beliefs, and identity separately, at times crossing each other’s paths chronologically. In the present scenario Archer relies upon Harry Clifton, Emma Barrington, Sebastian Clifton, Giles Barrington, and Alex Fisher to narrate the novel as each individual puts forth their own agenda.
(Bristol, England dock)
Apart from the returning characters just mentioned there are a number of new ones that Archer introduces. The most important of which are Lady Virginia Fenwick, a rather stuck up, snobby individual who has captured Giles’ emotions and will lead him down a path he will regret; and Don Pedro Martinez, a nefarious character engaged in counterfeiting among other illegal activities. Others who appear are Jessica the daughter of Giles’ father and his mistress who is adopted by Emma, her half sister and Harry Clifton; Sebastian Clifton, the precocious and rambunctious son of Emma and Harry Clifton, Gwyneth Hughes, Giles’ girlfriend, Ross Buchanan, Giles’ financial advisor, Mrs. Tibbet, who ran a small London hotel; Bruno Martinez, Don Pedro’s son, among others.
Alex Fisher will emerge as a key player as Archer develops his plot. Fisher has been a thorn in the side of Harry and Giles since they all attended the same boarding school. At Tobruk when Giles earned military honors, Fisher felt he was not rewarded and grew extremely jealous. Finally, he will hook up with Lady Virginia to try and wreak havoc with the Barrington family and businesses.
Archer does a wonderful job making the past prologue as in the case of Lady Virginia, “the quintessential bitch” with a hearing over Giles’ mother, Elizabeth’s will that is contested. The arguments and issues involved encompass a host of issues and relationships that are very entertaining. The Parliamentary election campaign between Giles and Fisher takes the reader inside the English elective process and reflects a number of strategies on the part of both candidates and their supporters.
Archer does introduce a number of narcissistic and immoral characters as the plot develops, but he does allow for a number of relationships to be reestablished once the truth of certain machinations emerges. Though this is important, Archer is rather simplistic in his approach at times and this aspect could have been better developed. In his fast paced narrative Archer introduces a new angle that did not appear in the first two novels, corporate intrigue as Lady Virginia and Alex Fisher try and take over Barrington Shipping that brings a certain amount of drama to the story.
Sebastian inadvertently emerges as a major character as he becomes involved in a scheme developed by Don Pedro Martinez to smuggle millions of counterfeit pounds into England. Though this aspect of the novel creates a sense of drama it is an abrupt shift in the course of the novel that does not transition well from the rest of the story. Further, the absence of Bruno in the process makes little sense and Archer seems to force a shift of the novel to Sebastian’s role.
Archer provides an almost pitch-perfect continuation of the Clifton family saga; his shrewd twists are addictive from the outset and as usual he ends the novel as a cliff hanger leaving the reader to wonder how things will work themselves out. The story continues in the next installment, BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.