Thursday, March 27, 2008

Desai and Archer: Always on Target

Manmohan Desai wrote only one story in his life.
x (where x = integer greater than 1) siblings and y sets of parents (where y = integer greater than 1 but not equal to x) are separated due to evil relatives or natural calamities. They have a unique common trait in physical (locket, letter, tattoo) or metaphysical (secret, habit, song) form. They grow up (old) while coming in contact with each other at regular intervals but are unable to recognise each other. They are united after 7 songs, 4 fights and one drunken scene featuring Amitabh Bachchan.
And he directed 21 films, of which at least 16 were box-office record-breakers.

As I finished the 531-page long A Prisoner of Birth - Jeffrey Archer's latest novel - in a breathless burst of less than 24 hours, I realised that Jeffrey Archer has a lot in common with Manmohan Desai.
His best novels have all been based on one theme - legendary enmity between powerful adversaries. Kane And Abel. The Prodigal Daughter. Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. First Among Equals. As the Crow Flies. The Fourth Estate. Sons of Fortune.

You can also add to that a plot twist more commonly associated with Bollywood - separation at birth and/or mistaken parentage. I would probably be giving away too many surprises if I started listing these down.

But like Mr Desai's best, they are good to the point of being addictive.

While zipping through the novel, I was amazed to discover a series of plot devices that have appeared in his earlier novels but as a master storyteller, he managed to disguise most of them and make them look new (if not, fresh).
About a year back, I had listed down a series of similarities in Sidney Sheldon's novels. This is similar to that but Archer is a smarter author with greater research, which makes the devices recognisable but not predictable.
Here is my list of the plot devices that I have come across in multiple Jeffrey Archer novels. They are not broad themes as the ones I mentioned above but are quirky set pieces, which the author is obviously fond of and comes back to repeatedly.
I have tried to disguise any spoilers because it would be such a pity if you got even a whiff of the plot twists beyond what is promised on the blurb!

Prison - Ever since he was incarcerated at Her Majesty's pleasure (one of his pet phrases!), Archer has used his first-hand knowledge of British prisons to embellish his novels. In fact, his last short story collection (Cat O' Nine Tails) came almost entirely out of experiences recounted to him by his fellow inmates. Some of his earlier stories (Trial and Error, for example) also had jail episodes but the authenticity (as well as detail) has only come with the author's stint at Belmarsh Prison.

House of Commons - First hand experience again. The Rt Honourable Archer served in both the Houses and First Among Equals came out of it first. Subsequently, a large number of his novels have MPs (mostly Conservative) flit in and out of the scene.
Apparently, the American and British version of First Among Equals had different characters becoming the Prime Minister.

Trial - Brilliant barristers and even more brilliant defendants add up to one hell of a cross examination, usually by a senior QC. His protagonists almost always had sound and thorough lawyers, advising and defending them. But the flip side was that the villain in several novels (The Prodigal Daughter, Sons of Fortune) have also been lawyers, who had become (by fair means or foul) the 'youngest partners in the firm's history'.
Also, there has been a large number of lawyers who have inherited their legal astuteness and probity from their fathers. Consecutive generations of lawyers served consecutive generations of the leading family in As the Crow Flies.
While on the topic of trials, in-chamber settlement of inheritance is another set-piece. Presided by a retired judge full of bonhomie, the protagonists are represented by sound lawyers (see above) and they engage in a duel of smart remarks before the matter is settled by a clever piece of trivia. In As The Crow Flies, a miniature Military Cross (war decoration) was involved and a rare stamp in A Prisoner of Birth.

Auction - Usually accompanied by added complication of an amateur bidder bidding far more than he can afford. As the Crow Flies, Endgame (short story) are the ones I can think of right now.

Swiss Bank - Is this another location of which Lord Archer has a first hand experience of? With sales of his books running into millions of copies, presumably so. The legendary secretiveness of Swiss bankers, their discrete institutions and tons of ill-gotten wealth inside their vaults come back again and again. Depositing an inheritance in a Swiss bank and then leaving a clue for the beneficiary has already been done in A Matter of Honour and now A Prisoner of Birth as well.
Clean Sweep Igantius (short story) was a cute dig at the Swiss' passion for secrecy.

Disciplinarian matron - Florentyna Rosnovski had Mrs Tredgold as her governess (The Prodigal Daughter). The Rupert Murdoch character (in The Fourth Estate) had one as his bankruptcy advisor (Elizabeth Beresford, I think). Both these women were of unimpeachable integrity, unquestionable sternness and infuriatingly calm in the face of calamity.
Mrs Tredgold is supposed to be Archer's favourite character as well.

Two phrases come pretty often:
* "Wash my hands off the whole affair" - In a reference to Pontius Pilate's infamous uttering after his inability to save Jesus Christ, wimpy / inconsequential people have said this in his novels (I remember two from The Prodigal Daughter and A Prisoner of Birth), with even the same rejoinder - "No doubt you will end up being in the footnote of history like the first guy who said this..."
* "He kissed her on both cheeks like a French general" - I had no idea that French generals kiss people (women?) on both cheeks but now I know. In this context, it would be interesting to note that an apocryphal story floated in Calcutta when Satyajit Ray was given the Legion D'Honeur, President Mitterand wanted to kiss him on his cheeks and Ray subtly refused.

Other quirky repeats are venues like Hotel Dorchester and uncommon names starting with H - Hugo, Hannibal etc. In fact, in Shall We Tell The President, the FBI Chief was called HAL Tyson and it was revealed at the end that the H stood for Horatio!
Adding one's birth date at the end of a tender bid has also happened enough number of times.

And finally, the trick from A Prisoner of Birth which has been straightaway lifted from The Eleventh Commandment. It is exactly the same trick except that the build-up is so good that you almost miss it.
Want a hint? One line from the blurb... "Danny is sentenced to 22 years and sent to Belmarsh prison, the highest security jail in the land, from where no inmate has ever escaped."

Read it. Guaranteed to keep you up till you finish it.

Just like Amar Akbar Anthony!
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