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A PRISONER OF BIRTH
by Jeffrey Archer
Macmillan, October 2008
531 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 033046406X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Here's a nice, feel good tale in which everyone good comes out on top whilst everyone evil receives his comeuppance. If you, Dear Reader, have read THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, you might find the text resonating and, indeed, Archer's prose pays tribute to Alexandre Dumas père.

Danny Cartwright proposes to his girlfriend Beth Wilson and he, his future brother-in-law and his fiancée go to a wine bar to celebrate. Unfortunately, they get into a tussle with a drug addict, a barrister, a mediocre actor and an estate agent, all of whom have known each other from university days and have sworn allegiance to each other, come what may. What comes is that the barrister stabs the brother-in-law to death. Alas, the fiancée is away, attempting to hail a cab so doesn't witness the murder of her brother, who is Danny's best friend.

When the police arrive, they take notice only of the upper crust quartet, rather than the best friend and the sister of the deceased. The killer, of course, has managed to escape to his conveniently close domicile, shower and dress in clothes free from bloodstains. Thus, Danny is chucked in the slammer, Belmarsh, (where Archer himself was incarcerated for a while) for twenty-two years following his trial at which he was inadequately represented by inexperienced counsel.

Once imprisoned, Danny is placed in the same cell as Sir Nicholas Moncrieff and Big Al Crann, men who were together in the army, Moncrieff being an officer (and, needless to say, a gentleman.)

Somehow, Danny has reached his advanced age without learning to read and write. Nick takes it upon himself to school the oik in all things necessary to a gentleman. Danny is a very intelligent man and shows an aptitude for business studies, as well as English and English literature.

Tragedy makes itself felt when villainy strikes down Sir Nick, in the belief he is Danny. A superficial likeness between Danny and Nick permits the former to be released when it is time for the latter to go free, and Danny reenters civilian life as Sir Nicholas Moncrieff, with Big Al as his driver, once Al, too, is released.

Nick's uncle Hugo is Nick's sworn enemy and is determined to do anything he can to discredit Danny/Nick. Danny, meanwhile, sets about attempting to wreak vengeance on those responsible for his imprisonment.

As previously mentioned, the whole is truly a feel good, unsophisticated tale. The blurb warns readers that they must "prepare for an ending that will shock even the most ardent of Archer's fans," but I'm afraid that is something of an overstatement.

To my mind, at least, the characterisation is on the frail side. Perhaps, in Dumas' time, it would be acceptable but in the modern age, we expect something more complex.

Where Archer shines is, naturally enough, in his depiction of prison conditions. One wonders how his books might have been improved had he been guilty of murder. Regardless, his inside knowledge informs a vivid portrayal of what an inmate might find once banged up.

There are a few loose ends. For example, surely there must have been, in real life, a thorough investigation into the circumstances of Danny's "death," Not only that, on his release, would not Danny have not tried to find Beth and see how she was doing?

Perhaps the tale does lack bite but for those in the market for a happy ever after story, it is satisfying.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, September 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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