HANGS A TALE
By Jeffrey Archer, Pan, £3.50
Jeffrey Archer is one of the great storytellers within the genre of popular fiction. Revelations by one of his editors informed his readers about the number of revisions that his writings go through, and how the concerned editor had to refashion some of Archer’s best stories. A reader need not be concerned with such back-room activities concerning author and editor. What matters is that the kernel of a plot is always Jeffrey Archer’s, and out of this emerges a gripping tale with an inevitable twist. In spite of the best-selling status of his novels, Archer excels in the short story.
Most of Archer’s short stories are based on real-life incidents, which he then embellishes with details. In this volume, there are 15 stories out of which 10 are based on real-life incidents that Archer heard on his travels across the world over the last six years. One of the stories in this book is based in India, and will have many readers making enquiries about the identity of the couple whose poignant story is told. Archer tried this technique of building on an actual incident in his first collection, A Quiver full of Arrows. There, the moving retelling of the love affair of two Oxford dons or the story concerning an Indian prince winning his blue in cricket in Oxford had made many readers wonder about the history behind the story. Archer deliberately provokes this by marking with an asterisk those stories that grow out of a real-life occurrence.
Archer’s gift as a storyteller lies in his ability to carry his reader along with him with a certain amount of detail (never too much) and clues that make the reader expectant about what is going to happen in the end, which, almost always, is a surprise. This makes reviewing a volume like this somewhat difficult because to give away the end of any story is to take away from its real attraction, and without the ending many of the stories lack their punch and could appear too trivial.
The story with the Indian link in this volume is a good example. It is called “Caste-Off”, and is about the flashy second son of a Rajput maharaja whose playboy days come to an end when he falls in love with the beautiful daughter of an important businessman. He defies family tradition to marry outside his caste and is disowned by his father. It reads like a fairy tale as the couple go off for their honeymoon. Do they live happily ever after? Read it for yourself to find out.
The book opens with a gem regarding a beautiful and aristocratic London socialite who courts a young man outside her “set”, and the reader is none the wiser about what is actually going on till the last page of the story.
Archer has a fascination for individuals who through sheer hard work and some amount of luck rise far above their original station in life. He traces the life story of one such person in “Members Only”, but in the process also tells his readers about what happened to people who lived in Jersey Island during the Nazi takeover.
The stories are set in various different locations: Delhi, London, Jersey Island, Majorca, a small village in Tuscany (one of the best in the book), inside a British prison and so on. The flavours are different and so are the aftertastes. Highbrows will turn up their noses at this book. Not quite Maupassant or Chekhov they will grumble. The loss is theirs because the stories, like Archer’s previous ones, are a delight.