Jeffrey Archer has had a remarkable run --- one that has taken
him to the top of bestseller lists for fiction and nonfiction
works, to both houses of British Parliament and to British prisons.
When Archer is said to be known as “The World’s Master
Storyteller,” one cannot determine if it is indeed meant as a
compliment without knowing the predispositions toward Archer of the
person making the statement. However, there is no question after
reading A PRISONER OF BIRTH, Archer’s latest work, that such
a title should be applied in the positive.
A PRISONER OF BIRTH is a literary novel in the classic sense; it is
impossible to read the book without thinking of Charles
Dickens’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES or any number of works by O.
Henry. Yet this is a contemporary tale, from beginning to end, set
very much in the “now.” It begins with a London couple,
Danny Cartwright and Beth Wilson, celebrating their engagement with
Bernie Wilson, Danny’s best friend and Beth’s brother.
Before the night is over, Bernie will be dead, Danny will be framed
for his murder, and Beth will have lost the two men she has loved
most --- one to the void, and the other to a misapplied justice.
Danny is sent to prison thanks to the machinations of a quartet of
friends --- a barrister, an aristocrat, a popular actor and a
successful real estate agent --- who, directly and indirectly, are
responsible for Bernie’s death.
The ironic sense of humor of a prison guard results in Danny
sharing a cell with Nicholas Moncrieff, an inmate whose jailing is
as unlikely as Danny’s. It is Nicholas who, both directly and
indirectly, provides Danny with the means by which he is able to
gain his freedom from incarceration and begin a studied and
relentless revenge against the men who have sullied his name and
ruined his life. How he is able to pull this off provides the meat
for this complex and intricate tale, supported by a cast of
unforgettable characters who come together in a spellbinding
narrative, bookended by nerve-wracking courtroom dramas wherein
freedom and an endless love hang in the balance.
There are certain elements of A PRISONER OF BIRTH that require some
suspension of disbelief: the close resemblance between Danny and
Nicholas, upon which so much hinges, seems just a bit contrived,
and Danny is almost too quick a study under Nicholas’s
tutoring to reasonably be believed. Such complaints, though, pale
in comparison to the body of this story, which will leave readers
alternately stunned and cheering --- and furiously turning pages
until they reach the shocking conclusion.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011