MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY by Nev March

Bombay, India, late 19th century
(Late 19th century Bombay, India)

When a new historical mystery earns the “First Crime Novel Award” by the Mystery Writers of America it will always spark my interest.  This was the case with Nev March’s first novel, MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY.  Set in India in 1892 during the height of British rule, the book centers around the death of two women who at first seemed to have committed suicide, but after careful examination the cause of death does not make sense.  The chief protagonist who comes to that conclusion is Captain Jim Agnihorti, a recently retired soldier whose cultural background is half English and half Indian.  Agnihorti is a fascinating character as he evolves from a soldier with twelve years of experience, Dragoons, and Bombay Regiments to either a journalist or a detective.  He was injured in the line of duty in Karachi in 1890 and nominated for the Victoria Cross, but since he was not a full blooded Englishman, he earned the Indian Order of Merit.

At the outset Agnihorti is lying in a hospital bed in the Poona Military facility recovering from a wound suffered in a skirmish on the wild northern frontier.  While resting he read a newspaper article from which he learned about a supposed double suicide where two women fell from a university clock tower in broad daylight.  For Agnihorti the case did not add up especially when three men charged with the crime were acquitted.  After his release from the hospital the retired soldier contacted the husband and brother of the two victims, Mr. Adi Framji.  Looking to his future Agnihorti obtained a job as a journalist at the Bombay Chronicle.  But when Framji hired him to investigate the death his career as a journalist ended, and his new avocation as a detective began.

March’s first novel is more than a murder mystery but a thoughtful beautifully written examination of the Indian caste system, the intense poverty that existed in the Raj, the virulent racism and condescension by the British, and the dangers of tribal and frontier fighting in India and Afghanistan. Since Agnihorti is of mixed blood, at times he is a victim of British self-righteousness and the Indian upper caste.  March provides the reader with the texture of Bombay as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.  The street urchins, the enslaving of young girls for sex, and the extreme wealth of the Franjis and other families are on full display.

Painting of  Sepoy Mutiny, 1857
(Sepoy Rebellion, 1857)

Of course, in any novel there must be a love interest and March does not let the reader down.  Agnihorti falls for Diana Framji, Adi’s sister but since he is of mixed blood, and does not fit into the Indian caste system his hope for a lasting relationship seems destined to fail.   Burjor, Diana’s father warns Agnihorti that he would not be an acceptable husband even though the family thinks highly of him particularly since his investigation is designed to protect the family.  In addition, Burjor is trying to arrange a marriage for Diana to a person of the proper caste. There is a great deal of drama within the family with the murders, but also it appears that they are hiding something and Agnihorti has to pull information out of them very carefully.

There is also a political component to the story as two characters emerge.  Rani, the Queen of Ranjpoot and her nephew Nur Suleiman especially when Suleiman is caught burglarizing the Framji mansion by Agnihorti.  It is also possible that Suleiman is Akbar, one of the men acquitted of the murders.  If Agnihorti identifies Prince Suleiman who was next in line to become regent of Ranjpoot the British could use it to take over the princedom along with hundreds of estates.  It appears that the murders are a pawn in a political power struggle between the British Raj and the Rani for control of Ranjpoot.  When Agnihorti is attacked it is evidence he is a threat to Suleiman and his family interests.

March does not shy away from exploring the poverty that is endemic to 19th century India.  An excellent example are the scenes depicted as Agnihorti disguised as a tribal fighter travels from Bombay to Lahore to investigate a possible link to Kasim who used to live and work for the Framji family and his investigation.  Along the way Agnihorti buys a young girl, Chutzki out of slavery and as they travel together, they are joined by three young boys and a baby who are refugees from the tribal warfare.  Agnihorti brings them to Simla where the Franjis are spending the summer.  Soon the children are left behind as Agnihorti is pressured by a British commander to pursue a mission to Lahore while his investigation continues.  It is an extremely dangerous undertaking but Agnihorti takes Raza,  one of the boys with him who knows the frontier region along with a British escort, Subaltern Ranbir Singh.

Image result for India map

March possesses an excellent command of the history of the British Raj in 19th century India.  Her integration of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion against British rule is spot on as is her approach of weaving the uprising into the overall flow of the novel.  As the story comes to a head the Framji family history during the rebellion becomes a bone of contention that becomes a major threat and helps explain March’s plot that she develops over hundreds of pages.**

india1857

March effectively builds tension as the novel unfolds particularly as Agnihorti departs the British base and tries to carry out his military mission and find evidence against the killer he seeks.  Throughout the novel an overall concern is that Agnihorti suffers from PTSD with the attendant nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, fears because of what happened in Karachi in 1890.  As he pursues his missions his guilt about the past continues to resurface and he must learn to overcome them to continue.

Agnihorti is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and throughout the novel there are constant references to Conan Doyle’s hero’s techniques.  Agnihorti himself is a fascinating character.  A bastard who did not know his father, a personal bridge between British and Indian culture, and a sense of honor and pride that carries him forward.  March has done a magnificent job in introducing the Captain James Agnihorti character and it is clear that she is a superb storyteller and I look forward to her next literary effort.

** For further information regarding the Sepoy Rebellion see THE GREAT MUTINY INDIA 1857 by Christopher Hibbert and THE GREAT MUTINY by Richard Collier.

(Late 19th century Bombay, India)

HERESY by S.J. Parris

Armada Portrait Queen Elizabeth I
(Queeen Elizabeth I)

For those of you who are familiar with C. J. Sansom’s novels that center around Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII, Iain Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, and perhaps the novels of Hillary Mantel that focuses on Henry VIII’s vicar, Thomas Cromwell you might do well to consider S.J. Parris’ (the pseudonym of British journalist Stephanie Merritt) novels whose main character Giordano Bruno is a true historical figure set during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Parris’ exploration of Bruno’s beliefs, life’s work, and talents emerge in the first of seven novels entitled HERESY a story that has the inauspicious beginning of Bruno sitting in the privy at San Domenico Maggiore in Naples reading Erasmus’ COMMENTARIES.  When he is caught with this reading material, he is forced to throw it into the cesspool.  One must remember that in 1576 anyone in Catholic Naples who criticizes Catholicism is committing blasphemy and a crime that a Father Inquisitor might deem worthy of death.

The author employs Bruno’s life journey as an excellent vehicle to portray the religious schism that has overtaken Europe since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, and for Parris’ purpose its later impact on the reign of Elizabeth I who has rested her throne on the Act of Supremacy issued in 1558.  Bruno provides a superb foil against Catholic teachings as his life’s journey consisted of joining a monastery as a teenager and taking his vows at San Domenico Maggiore which he would come to reject after thirteen years.  He would wander Italy teaching and staying one step ahead of the father Inquisitor who had branded him a heretic.  He would escape to Geneva, where he was also branded as a heretic this time by the Calvinist power structure, Paris, and finally to England.  While in Paris, King Henri III would become his patron and would then travel on to London where he will be recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham to penetrate the Papist hotbed at the universities at Oxford. 

Parris’ dominate theme that permeates the novel is the schism between Catholics and Protestants as Bruno had traveled to England to write books which he believed would rock Europe to its foundations and search for a book that proved the universe was infinite going much further than Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, a book written by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus.  Bruno believed that a universe without end existed, as did a universal soul which we are all part of.  Bruno subscribed to the view that “the divinity is in all of us and in the substance of the universe with the right knowledge, we can draw down all the powers of the cosmos.  When one understands this, we can become equal to God.”

(Giordano Bruno)

Parris’ plot unfolds as Bruno is accompanied to Oxford by Sir Philip Sidney, an aristocratic soldier-poet who he had met in Padua, and palatine Albert Laski, a conceited Polish poet.  Bruno’s purpose is to engage the Rector John Underhill of Lincoln College in a disputation.  Before the debate can take place, Bruno comes across the body of Roger Mercer one of the fellows who dined regularly at Underhill’s table.  It appears that the rest of the college is at pains to cover up the murder and Bruno’s charge is completely changed, and it appears that someone has created a grisly scenario in the name of Catholicism or is it Protestantism.  Bruno’s investigation allows Parris to accurately convey life in the English countryside during the period sprinkling in seedy taverns, mysterious bookshops, in addition to Oxford’s world renown libraries.

Francis Walsingham (c1532-1590) 'spymaster' to Elizabeth I. He is frequently cited as one of the earliest practitioners of modern intelligence both for espionage and internal security. His network penetrated the heart of Spanish military preparation, gath... : News Photo
(Sir Francis Walsingham)

Parris has employed a number of characters to carry out her story line.  Each character associated with Oxford and its colleges seem to reflect English arrogance and an anti-Oxford bias throughout the novel.   The most important individuals include Rector Underhill’s daughter, Sophia  an interesting individual who craves learning and resents the role of woman in English society.  Bruno’s main foil within the college is the Bursar Walter Slythurst with other individuals like James Coverdale who will now accede to the office of Deputy Rector with the passing of Mercer, William Bernard, a fellow who had been the librarian in 1569 when the library had been purged of heretical materials, Master Richard Godwyn, a mild mannered  librarian and fellow, Gabriel Norris, a student who used his long bow to kill Mercer’s assailant, Rowland Jenks, a bookseller who chopped off his own ears, Mr. Cobbett, an alcoholic porter involved in security, and Thomas Allen a student whose father, the former sub-Rector and teacher had been unceremoniously removed from the college resulting in his son’s loss of his scholarship.

Parris has written an atmospheric thriller dropping Bruno into the paranoid world of Oxford Papists which he must navigate to survive intellectually as he tries to solve the murder of Mercer, and unravel Oxford’s tangled loyalties, some of which border on treason.  As the novel unfolds a number of other Oxford fellows are murdered as Bruno becomes part detective as well as a humanistic philosopher who seems ahead of his time as he tries to offer further enlightenment to Europe.

On the whole the novel is well conceived, and once the reader acclimates themselves to Parris’ dialogue, they will become engrossed and will be exposed to a fascinating historical mystery.  The next installment of Parris’ Bruno series PROPHECY examines an astrological phenomenon that portends the death of Elizabeth as her throne is constantly threatened by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600. Wiki Commons.(Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600)

THE CLIFTON CHRONICLES, a seven book series by Jeffrey Archer (a synopsis)



Jeffrey Archer (Image: Jeffrey Archer/via Facebook)

(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

Recently I had the pleasure of spending a few weeks with two English families; the Barrington’s and the Clifton’s.  The family members form the core of English novelist Jeffrey Archer’s seven volume CLIFTON CHRONICLES mostly set in Bristol and London from the immediate post World War I period through the early 1990s.  For this reviewer, Archer’s compilation served as a wonderful distraction to the COVID-19 19 pandemic and other disconcerting events that have been ever present.  The series focuses on family values, a host of interesting characters, moral and immoral, and repeated plot twists and turns beginning with volume one, ONLY TIME WILL TELL and concluding with volume seven, THIS WAS A MAN.

Archer employs the literary technique of allowing his major characters to tell their side of the story as it unfolds.  Each character recounts how they see events and Archer allows their individual stories which are different to eventually come together.  Archer recapitulates important details from each novel allowing the reader to explore each novel separately, but I would recommend that the story be read from volume one onward.  Each section zeroes on one character in which Maise Clifton, Harry and Emma Clifton, Sebastian Clifton, Jessica Giles Barrington, Lady Virginia Fenwick, all play major roles. 

The characters run the gamut from those mentioned to Sir Alan Redmayne a cabinet secretary in charge of MI6 reflecting Archer’s integration of espionage into his storyline along with a possible “sparrow” or Russian double agent Karin Brandt who Giles Barrington falls in love with.  Baroness Cynthia Forbes-Watson, an eighty year old retired MI6 agent.  Cedric Hardcastle and his son Arnold, the Barrington Shipping Company lawyer play significant roles as does Hakim Bishara, a Turkish banker who works with Sebastian Clifton to head the Farthings Kaufman bank.  Aaron Guizburg and his father are Harry Clifton’s publishers at Viking Press, and Anatoly Babakov who has written UNCLE JOE telling the truth about Stalin finds himself in the Soviet Gulag allowing Harry Clifton to rally world opinion to free him. 

There are a number of individuals who engage in periodic corporate machinations from trying to  take over Barrington Shipping, Farthings Kaufman Bank and Mellor Travel.  We meet Adrian Sloane, Jim Knowles, and Desmond Mellor who form a troika of undesirables.  Adding to the list is Conrad Sorkin an international gangster.  Historical figures abound as Margaret Thatcher plays a prominent role befriending Emma Clifton.  Other Prime Ministers who appear include James Callaghan, Ted Heath, and Harold Wilson; in addition to politicians like Michael Foot and Dennis Healy who have a tremendous impact on the political career of Giles Barrington.

The one character who seems to pop up all the time is Lady Virginia Fenwick, Giles Barrington’s ex-spouse.  She is a schemer out for revenge against anything Barrington or Clifton.  She is involved in assorted plots to destroy both families and secure her wealth.  My favorite is how she convinces the Duke of Hertford, a recent widow to be his wife.  But she is also involved with the “undesirables” already described and their numerous corporate shenanigans.

Archer plays close attention to British politics in the House of Commons and House of Lords in each novel as the political careers of Giles Barrington and Emma Clifton evolve.  Archer is deeply knowledgeable about British elections and the legislative process as he weaves them into his story.  Apart from politics and corporate issues Archer integrates a number of ancillary situations involving the Clifton family including; Jessica, a precocious young artist; the rise of Sebastian to head the Farthings Kaufman Bank; Harry’s arrest in the Soviet Union working to free Anatoly Babakov; and Emma’s rise to head Barrington Shipping, and becoming her  Undersecretary of Health in the House of Lords under Margaret Thatcher.

There are numerous other characters who interact with both families which reflect Archer’s command of history and new events.  Archer does a wonderful job in character development and presents the chronological growth of each person and their impact on others. Archer is the master of the literary cliffhanger as at the end of each novel a situation is created that is designed to cajole the reader on to the next volume.

At a time of pandemic Archer’s  volumes and the series in general is a wonderful escape from quarantine and anxiety.  If it is prose one is looking for, Archer has his moments, but most often the writing is somewhat pedestrian with a touch of irony and humor.  Whether he is describing speeches in the House of Lords; the interior of Buckingham Palace; the boardroom or the visitor room of a prison, Archer’s writing is authentic.  When the pandemic ends and you are once again off to vacation or just the beach Archer’s work will entertain as you while away the hours dealing with his numerous subterfuges and double-crosses, as in the end he will bring his series to a deeply emotional conclusion.

Lord Archer claims to earn £10,000 an hour from his books, rising at 6am to write by hand
(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

THIS WAS A MAN by Jeffrey Archer

MPs are being asked to sign an Early Day Motion calling for further research
(English House of Parliament)

In the final installment of his CLIFTON CHRONICLES, THIS WAS A MAN Jeffrey Archer has to resolve what has happened to Karin Brandt, Giles Barrington’s spouse but also a double agent that the Russians have uncovered.  Her handler has led her into the woods and her plight along with Emma Clifton’s quest to learn how her husband Harry’s father died after World War I are the launching points that after five hundred pages brings Archer’s seven volume family saga to an end. 

Overall, the entire series was a worthwhile read, but the last book at times does not measure up to some of the earlier ones.  First, how many iterations of Lady Virginia Fenwick can one absorb as like a weed she continues to sprout her strategies to acquire wealth in exchange for nothing no matter how much poison she emits and has dumped on her.  The entire episode dealing with the widowed Duke of Hertford is a bit much as is her relationship with Desmond Mellor and attempts to control Mellor Travel.  Second, many of the scenarios are a bit contrived as is witnessed by the relationship between Paulo Reinaldo, a Brazilian playboy and pseudo art student and Jessica Clifton, Samantha and Sebastian Clifton’s daughter.  When the relationship explodes in newspapers, of course Aunt Grace rescues her from being expelled from the Slade School of Fine Arts.  Interestingly, Lady Virginia even plays a role in this situation!

Margaret Thatcher
(Former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

Apart from scenes like these there are a number of plot lines that are absorbing and fit Archer’s creation of a cliff hanger at the conclusion of each section.  Emma’s relationship with the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and appointment as Undersecretary of Health in the House of Lords is interesting as is Archer’s description of English politics as the Conservative Tories replace Labour at 10 Downing Street.  The plight of Freddie, the supposed son of Lady Virginia, soon to be adopted by Giles and Kristin Barrington with the actions of Elly May Grant in the background trying to recoup the money that Lady Virginia coerced from her then fiancée Cyrus Grant is eye opening.  Further we return to the machinations of Desmond Mellor, Adrian Stone and Jim Knowles as they try to take over Farthings Kaufman Bank with a new villain, Conrad Sorkin introduced as they all vie to seize control of Mellor Travel.  Interestingly, a number of these characters wind up dead.  This convoluted web is important and here Archer deftly weaves his conspiratorial magic and even has time to follow the ups and downs of Giles Barrington’s political career.  There are numerous subplots that will maintain the reader’s attention, but again, Lady Virginia seems to be everywhere with hit men, corporate espionage, politicians like Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, and Dennis Healy ever present.

Emma Clifton remains a dominant character as is her growth as a businesswoman and a person who does not tolerate the picadilloes of others.  The evolution of Harry Clifton as a writer from his William Warwick series to one of substance is important as is the growth of Emma and Harry’s son Sebastian who moves seamlessly through the London banking scene.  Other characters who reappear include Griff Haskins, Giles’ campaign manager, Hakim Bishara, Sebastian’s corporate ally, in addition to the cast of low life’s mentioned earlier. Newer members of the cast include Kelly Mellor who is able to outwit everyone to control her father’s company, Conrad Sorkin, an international crook, and the Brazilian lover, Paulo Reinaldo who seduces Jessica away from her art career for a period of time.

In November, 1989, East German students sit atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards. The destruction of the once-hated wall signaled the end of a divided Germany.
(The end of the Berlin Wall, 1989)

Perhaps the two highlights of the novel center around the debate in the House of Lords between brother and sister, Giles representing the Labour Party, and Emma, the Tories.  Second is the eulogy presented by Giles for his friend since childhood that encompasses the type of character Archer developed in Harry Clifton and the extraordinary life that he lived.  Archer has the ability to create mundane scenes, but also the most intense and absorbing. 

At a time of pandemic Archer’s final volume and the series in general is a wonderful escape from quarantine and anxiety.  If it is prose one is looking for, Archer has his moments, but most often the writing is somewhat pedestrian with a touch of irony and humor.  The book is full of sometimes totally unexpected twists but is written with authenticity, including a knowledge of cricket that should impress the reader.  Whether he is describing speeches in the House of Lords; the interior of Buckingham Palace; the boardroom or the visitor room of a prison, Archer is writing about what he knows.  If there is a dominant theme in the series, it is the strength of family with the Barrington’s and Clifton’s reflecting their moral values and, in most cases, the “good guys” come out on top.  When the pandemic ends and you are once again off to vacation or just the beach Archer’s work will enhance as you while away the hours dealing with numerous subterfuges and double-crosses, as he brings his series to a deeply emotional conclusion.

COMETH THE HOUR by Jeffrey Archer

A golden medallion with an embossed image of Alfred Nobel facing left in profile. To the left of the man is the text "ALFR•" then "NOBEL", and on the right, the text (smaller) "NAT•" then "MDCCCXXXIII" above, followed by (smaller) "OB•" then "MDCCCXCVI" below.
(Nobel Prize)

Like links in a chain, Jeffrey Archer continues his CLIFTON CHRONICLES leaving the reader wondering what the results of Lady Virginia Fenwick’s libel charge against Emma Clinton will be.  The jury is about to return a verdict when the judge issues permission for Major Alex Fisher’s suicide note to be read to the court.  In COMETH THE HOUR the letter is read to the court and its implications for all involved are immediate.  With this opening Archer, as per usual has piqued the reader’s interest and they will begin a five hundred page voyage that will take them through the labyrinth of the Barrington family dealings, including the Farthing Bank, Giles’ quest to rescue Karin Pengeller, his recent translator in East Berlin, Harry Clinton’s quest to obtain Anatoly Babakov’s freedom as he languishes in the Soviet Gulag, and the integration of corporate and state sponsored espionage to his multiple plot lines.

The sixth installment in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES is structured as the previous five with each section being directed by one of the major characters.  In COMETH THE HOUR, they include Harry and Emma Clinton, Giles Barrington, Lady Virginia Fenwick, Sebastian Clifton, Maise Clinton, Harry’s mother, and Turkish financier, Hakim Bishara.  Each character has their own agenda which of course brings about conflict with others. 

Performers posing as US soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie - 2018 photo
(Checkpoint Charlie, East and WestBerlin)

As I read the novel at first I was a little disappointed, but then Archer ramped up the plot.  There are a number of storylines that emerge.  First, Harry Clifton’s publisher, Aaron Guinzburg faces a takeover from a friend with unexpected consequences.  Second, Sebastian Clifton’s love life.  It seems he has given up on Samantha Sullivan and has turned to Priya Ghuman, but that relationship has an unfortunate end allowing Sebastian to focus on Samantha and their daughter Jessica, a rather precocious eleven year old once again.  Third, Giles Barrington has his own relationship issues.  He has fallen for Karin Pengelly an East German translator and he works diligently to arrange her escape from behind the iron curtain.  Once this is achieved, we learn the truth about Katrin Pengelly, a.k.a. Karin Brandt, a Russian “sparrow.”  Once the “love issues” are seemingly resolved, Archer becomes more serious as the fourth storyline emerges as Adrian Sloan and Desmond Mellor continue their attempts to take over Farthing Bank, this time trying to frame Hakim Bishara and other machinations.  Lastly, Lady Virginia Fenwick continues her attempts to obtain the wealth to live a “lifestyle she has grown accustomed to.”  She will fabricate a number of situations from pregnancy to other forms of fraud. 

Archer continues to create a number of interesting new characters.  Chief among them are Baroness Cynthia Forbes-Watson who works for MI6; Chief Inspector Barry Hammond, a former cop who is hired to save Bishara; Mai Ling, an ex-cop who as a masseur performs some interesting legal work, Ellie May, the wife of Cyrus Grant of Louisiana who works to undo Lady Virginia’s latest fraud, among others.  Historical figures continue to make cameo appearances.  The most consequential are future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; West German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel; and British Prime Ministers Ted Heath and James Callaghan.

Archer explores a number of cultural issues particularly as it relates to Hindu and Christian views of marriage very nicely.  However, at times Archer creates scenarios that are a bit farfetched, i.e., Lady Virginia’s attempt to fake her pregnancy and crash the wedding of an unsuspecting Louisiana millionaire.  There are a number of scenes that are quite entertaining particularly Harry Clifton’s interview on what is clearly the Today Show with Matt Lauer, though Archer has renamed the arrogant host as Matt Jacobs who unsuccessfully tries to trap Clifton and question the authenticity of Anatoly Babakov’s book UNCLE JOE.  It is clear that Archer at times has a deft touch with humor, but also at times he does create situations that are hard to fathom.


A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).
(Soviet Gulag)

As in the other installments of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES English parliamentary politics and elections are ever present.  The career of Giles Barrington is portrayed, and the reader continues to be exposed to issues that confront parliament and the precarious nature of British politics as elections seem to come one after another without the requisite time frame between them.  In doing so Archer’s command of British history comes to the fore.

Archer continues his storytelling magic and character development.  However, if one is jumping into the CHRONICLES with the sixth book it might be confusing so I would suggest reading the series from the outset.  Archer has created a complex, involved and far-arching tale of complicated family tie and his trademark twists and turns will keep the reader totally involved in the story, though it seems it is less gripping than previous volumes.  Despite this slight drawback, Archer of course leaves the reader hanging as the book ends and makes one want to read the concluding volume, THIS WAS A MAN.

Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes by  Nils K Stahle - 1st Edition; 1st Printing - 1960 - from S. Howlett-West Books (member of ABAA & ILAB) (SKU: 29423)

MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD by Jeffrey Archer

Moscow River and Kremlin
(The Kremlin, Moscow, Rusia)

“Gotcha!” should be novelist Jeffrey Archer’s mantra.  The author of numerous historical fiction thrillers includes the fifth book in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD which grabs the reader from the get-go and does not let them alone until another cliff hanger has been brought to conclusion, or as Archer usually is able to achieve, the ending brings the reader to call for the next installment.  In the present case we wonder what is the result of the IRA bomb that has exploded on the maiden voyage of Barrington Shipping’s first cruise ship, the MV Buckingham.

In true Archer fashion the novel has a number of storylines that seems disparate, but as in other books they form links that normally bring them together before the story is brought to fruition.  In MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD Archer continues a series of plot lines from BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR in addition to creating new ones.  First, is the dilemma that Emma Barrington, as chair of Barrington Shipping finds herself as she does not want to let the public know about the IRA bomb explosion on the maiden voyage of the Buckingham for fear of what it might do to the company’s profits and reputation.  Second, is the ongoing war perpetrated by Lady Virginia Fenwick who has sued Emma for libel, but more so is her attempt to take over Farthing Bank and destroy the Barrington family a situation that has been made easier with the death of Cedric Hardcastle. The only roadblock seems to be Sebastian Clifton’s attempt to try and purchase enough stock to gain a seat on the Farthing Bank’s board.  Third, and a new area for the reader to explore is the plight of Anatoly Babakov, Joseph Stalin’s former translator who has written a book entitled, UNCLE JOE that purports to tell the truth about Stalin’s murderous reign.  He has been arrested and sent into exile in Siberia and his wife is trying to get Harry Clifton to go to Moscow where she has hidden the manuscript and bring it to the west for publication.  Fourth, is the role played by Adrian Sloan, who had been Sebastian’s immediate boss at Farthing Bank who has his own agenda to head the bank’s board, destroy the Barrington’s and make a large profit over his financial manipulations.  Not surprisingly he is working with Lady Virginia as they seem to have a community of fate in dealing with the Barrington’s.  Lastly, Sebastian’s love for Samantha Sullivan who has turned away from him remains constant.

(Photo: Jeffrey Archer/ Facebook)
(Jeffrey Archer)

Archer brings back Major Alex Fisher whose vendetta against the Barrington’s has not been satiated.  Robert Bingham returns with his wife Priscilla who cannot be trusted, Sir Alan Redmayne, a Cabinet Secretary involved in British intelligence, and the entire Barrington family and their associates.  A few new characters are introduced who play major roles.  Saul Kaufman, the father of Sebastian’s friend who is a rich banker and is trying to assist Sebastian.  Desmond Mellor, a dissatisfied Barrington Shipping board member who wants to replace Emma.  Turkish financier Hakim Bishara joins the fray.  Karin Pengelly, an East German translator who Giles Barrington meets on a foreign ministry trip to East Berlin who will cause Giles to resign from Harold Wilson’s cabinet,  Maurice Swan, an educator that Sebastian needs to do right by, and Anatoly Babakov’s wife.

Archer introduces the reader to the structure of the Soviet government and how they deal with dissidents under Lenoid Brezhnev; the issue of East Berlin, the Stasi secret police, and the repression of East Germany; in an addition to the politics of British parliamentary elections.  In all cases Archer continues his excellent command of historical events and personalities, including appearances by Prime Ministers Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson, along with the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan.

Stalin photo portrait poster
(Joseph Stalin)

One of the major highlights of the novel is how Archer juxtaposes Harry’s show trial in Leningrad after being caught trying to smuggle Babakov’s manuscript out of Russia and the libel trial of Emma at the hands of Lady Virginia.  Archer’s sarcasm and sense of humor are on full display as is the impact of each event on the course of the novel.   Other interesting aspects of the book that Archer unveils is the role that Harry’s photographic memory plays as the story concludes and his rendition of how Stalin died.

In Archer’s previous novels the major characters usually land on their feet, in the present instance that result is not as clear cut.  But what is clear is that the reader will experience Archer’s trademark twist and turns through a series of plot changes that will bring the reader to the edge of their seats, and as per usual the book will end with a dramatic segway to the next volume in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, COMETH THE HOURS.

The Moscow Kremlin
(The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia)

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR by Jeffrey Archer

Cruise ship in caribbean sea : Stock Photo

From Jeffrey Archer’s perspective why change an approach that seems to work very nicely.  The approach I am speaking off is his storytelling ability that produces a wonderful family saga in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES with each volume ending in a cliff hanger that gently encourages the reader to pick up the next installment.  In the present instance BEST KEPT SECRET ended with an automobile accident that resulted in the death of one of the passengers, but we are left wondering if Harry and Emma’s son, Sebastian has survived.  In the next novel in the series BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, Archer’s plot revolves around the Barrington family and the machinations of Don Pedro Martinez, an international criminal who blames Harry Clifton for the death of his son, and Alex Fisher who attended boarding school with Giles Barrington and continues to seek revenge against Giles and his family dating back to their days in boarding school and the loss of a recent parliamentary election.

As is the case in the first iterations of the Clifton’s, Archer segments the story into chapters that focus on a given character and allows them to tell the story from their perspective.  Archer begins in the late 1950s with Harry and Emma taking the lead and moves on to Don Pedro Martinez, Cedric Hardcastle, a bluff Yorkshireman and dowdy old banker who plays a significant role, Major Alex Fisher, Giles Barrington, Sebastian and Jessica Clifton, and Don Pedro’s son Diego.  Each character has their own agenda and through a series of complex machinations Archer builds disparate segments of the story which come together in a rather dramatic fashion.

Bristol Harbour
(Bristol, England)

Aside from Hardcastle, there are a number of impactful characters like Robert Bingham, the fish paste king; Clive Bingham his son who wants to marry Jessica; Cabinet Secretary Alan Redmayne; Samantha Sullivan who has fallen in love with Sebastian; Susie Lampton, Alex Fisher’s wife who is somewhat of a double crosser; Karl Otto Lunsdorf, a former member of the Nazi SS and Martinez’s righthand man, among others.  Throughout the character development process, it seems that villains abound!  Historical characters and events make their appearance on a regular basis including a cameo by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and British Labour leader and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The key addition that Archer makes is Cedric Hardcastle who is an example of how the author is able to shift the focus of the novel on a dime, a process that he repeats often.  Hardcastle is the Chairman of the Farthing Bank and he will join forces with the Barrington’s to try and thwart Don Pedro Martinez and his sons.  Martinez will never get over the death of his son despite the fact it is his own fault and seeks revenge against any and all Barrington’s.  As the story evolves Archer adds a new element corporate greed through stock manipulation and other machinations.  The British intelligence service is continually active in the novel as Sir Alan contemplates assassinating Martinez and is heavily involved in thwarting the Argentinian kingpin who likes to pose as an English gentleman.  Further Archer integrates the Irish Republican Army into the storyline as they with Martinez in toe to do as much harm to Britain as possible.  Another component that stands out is Jessica’s lineage as her adopted parents Harry and Emma have not made her aware of who her parents were which leads to complications.

Jeffrey Archer
(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

Archer has the knack of creating scenes where the expected result becomes the unexpected, i.e., the Barrington Shipping Company’s Board elections to replace Ross Buckingham by Emma when Susan Fisher surprises everyone.  Archer also continues to present an unremarkable prose, but one cannot take away from him his ability to surprise the reader over and over.  As per usual the novel ends in a cliffhanger with the reader calling for a fifth volume of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES which happens to be MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD.

Aerial View Of Cruise Ship Sailing On Sea : Stock Photo

BEST KEPT SECRET by Jeffrey Archer

GREAT BRITAIN ENGLAND 5 POUNDS 2002 P 391 b UNC

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. 

Docks, Bristol, England, UK, Europe Stock Photo

(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.

City skyline of Buenos Aires with urban buildings
(Buenos Aires, Argentina)

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.

GREAT BRITAIN ENGLAND 5 POUNDS 2002 P 391 b UNC

THE SINS OF THE FATHER by Jeffrey Archer

(Bristol, England)

In his sequel to ONLY TIME WILL TELL, THE SINS OF THE FATHER, the second installment of his CLIFTON CHRONICLES novelist Jeffrey Archer picks up exactly where le left off.  Tom Bradshaw, the identity that Harry Clifton adopted after his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine finds himself accused of murder upon entering the port of New York.  Clifton believed by adopting his new persona it would solve his personal and family issues that remained at home in Bristol, England.  By the novel’s second page Archer has reengaged the reader with Clifton’s plight and for the next number of hours I found it difficult to put the book down.  Clifton had hoped to return to the United Kingdom and join the Royal Navy to fight the Nazis, but now found himself languishing in prison banking on his lawyer Sefton Jelks to obtain his freedom.

Archer continues to employ the literary technique of allowing his major characters to tell their side of the story as it unfolds.  Each character recounts how they see events and Archer allows their individual stories which are different to eventually come together.  Archer recapitulates important details from the first novel through Harry Clifton’s situation – six year jail term for desertion, instead of murder, and being left in the lurch by his lawyer who sold him out to the Bradshaw family.  Clifton remains madly in love with Emma Barrington, further he is obsessed to learn who his real father is, and what his role will be in the Barrington family hierarchy.

Bristol, Eng.

The backstory for the novel is World War II as Clifton has not lost the desire to enlist in the Royal Navy and Emma decides to travel to New York to find him.  As the novel unfolds, we are introduced to the New York branch of the Barrington family in the person of Emma’s Great Aunt Phyllis Stuart and her cousin Alistair who went after Jelks for the fraud he committed that resulted in Clifton’s imprisonment.  A number of characters reappear like Patrick Casey who had a relationship with Clifton’s mother Maisie; Hugo Barrington who continues his “sleazy” practices; Giles Barrington, Emma’s brother who has joined the Wessex Regiment and is a hero at Tobruk; Stanley Tancock, Clifton’s deranged uncle; Lieutenant Fisher who had harassed Clifton when they attended boarding school together; Walter Barrington, the fair minded head of the Barrington Shipping Company: Lord Harvey, Emma’s grandfather; Mr. Holcomb, Clifton’s former teacher, among a number of others.  New characters appear that enhance the plot; Sefton Jelks, a corrupt New York lawyer; Pat Quinn, Clifton’s cellmate; Terry Bates, who fought with Giles at Tobruk; Olga Piotrovska, Hugo Barrington’s lover; Mr. Guinzburg, editor at Viking Publishing; Max Lloyd, worked with Clifton in the prison library; Colonel Cleverdon, recruited Clifton for US Special Forces, Sebastian, Emma and Clifton’s son, and others who make for a fascinating read as Archer has the ability to develop his characters in such a way that the reader is drawn to them and for a few the reader can become emotionally involved with.

As Archer tells his story through Maisie Clifton, Hugo Barrington, Emma Barrington, and Harry Clifton the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into the story line.  As the novel progresses, Archer accurately introduces a number of shifts in the plot that relate to wartime events such as Pearl Harbor, Torbruk, Stalingrad, and German bombing of Bristol and London.  Over time Archer’s characters develop in a positive fashion like Maisie and Emma, and others like Hugo Barrington and Sefton Jelks deteriorate further through their narcissistic personalities.

Archer’s calculated plot twists keeps the reader totally engaged in the story.  He has the knack of setting the stage for events and reactions before they occur by dropping hints earlier in the story that come to fruition later.  The story has a series of highs and lows which the reader must adapt to, in addition Archer deftly is able to switch from scene to scene and character to character without detracting from the flow of the novel. 

Archer is obviously a master storyteller that has produced a collection of novels that form the CLIFTON CHRONICLES which are excellent beach, airplane, or plain escapist reading.  Archer’s unique conclusion should encourage his audience to read the next installment in the series, BEST KEPT SECRET.

Colorful homes in the Harbourside area of Bristol
(Bristol, England)

ONLY TIME WILL TELL by Jeffrey Archer

Port Avonmouth (England, UK) cruise port Bristol

(The dock area of Bristol, United Kingdom)

How did I go years without reading a Jeffrey Archer novel?  Periodically, friends would recommend his work, but it was not until I listened to a recent NPR interview with Archer that my interest was piqued.  The selection I chose was ONLY TIME WILL TELL the first installment of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES and it was a revelation. 

Archer has written a novel involving a series of relationships told through the voices of a number of characters.  Set in England from the end of World War I through the outbreak of World War II it involves two families; the Clifton’s, lower class and poor, the Barrington’s, upper class and rich.  Their interactions are based on a past history brought forward setting the tone and the course of the storyline.  Archer’s yarn is told through the differing perspectives of Maisie Clifton, a widow whose son has the great gift of voice, but the family is entrenched in poverty.  Hugo Barrington, a man whose one night fling has brought his hopes for his own family to a crisis despite their wealth.  Old Jack Tar, a man who has not gotten over his experience in the Boer War who knows everyone’s secrets and lives in a railroad car on Barrington property.  Giles Barrington, Hugo’s heir.  Emma Barrington, Giles’ sister who falls in love with his best friend.  Finally, Harry Clifton, whose hard work leads him to Oxford, but also to an unusual dilemma.

Archer does an accurate job presenting the class system that dominates English society.  The snobbery and deceit of the English upper class is on full display as characters interact driving the actions of a number of individuals.  Archer takes the reader through the experience of attending an English boarding school and the intense competition to gain entrance to premier schools like Eton and Oxford.  The plight of English labor is explored in detail concentrating on the docks of Bristol, England.

Video
(Oxford University)

The death of Arthur Clifton, Maisie’s husband forms the backstory of the novel.  Wounded in World War I Arthur would die a few years later.  The truth about his death is hidden because it could upend Hugo Barrington’s life plan and will have grave implications for his children.  Only a few people know the truth, and it is kept from Maisie’s son, Harry.  It seems that the Barrington Shipyard experiences an accident where Arthur, one of their workers is accidentally welded inside one of the companies ships where he perishes.  Archer has the knack of bringing two parallel stories told by separate characters that eventually come together creating an intense drama.

The story is full of anger and lies, but also the determination of a mother to allow her son to maximize his amazing talent despite the family’s poverty.  Archer writes as if he is creating a puzzle, and as the story unfolds the pieces seem to fit perfectly.  Each of the major characters has their own story that explains their actions.  For example, Old Jack Tar is really Captain Jack Tarrant who earned the Victoria Cross for saving over twenty of his compatriots during the Boer War, but he believes that he is responsible for the death of eleven Boer civilians.  His guilt controls his life and enforces a self-inflicted prison which dominates a good part of his behavior which includes developing a wonderful relationship with Harry Clifton from the time the boy was five years old.  He will become his mentor and greatly influence his life.

Hugo Barrington represents the seamier side of English society as he employs detectives, pays off witnesses, frames people who are then imprisoned and in general behaves like the spoiled “bastard” that he is.  He tries to control his family and the family Shipyard through intimidation and threats.  Hugo and other individuals reflect Archer’s ability to develop the personalities of his characters in a thoughtful and meaningful way.  As one reads on you feel that you know these people intimately and become emotionally entangled in their lives.

Archer possesses an excellent command of English history and integrates historical personalities like Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill along with important events leading to World War II very nicely.  After reading ONLY TIME WILL TELL I feel as if I have begun a journey with the Clifton’s and since there are six other volumes in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, I have a great deal of reading pleasure on the horizon particularly since Harry Clifton made a rather unusual decision as the novel comes to an end.

File:Britain Delivers the Goods in Wartime- Dock Workers in Bristol, England, 1940 D1220.jpg
(Loading cargo from Bristol, England)