Not guilty, My Lord!

A Prisoner of Birth
A Prisoner of Birth

by Jeffrey Archer. PanMacmillan. Pages 431. Rs 253.

Jeffrey Archer is no longer writing prison diaries, thought prisons and courts feature heavily in his latest multilayered thriller.

A poor man is wrongly convicted of murdering Bernie, his oldest friend, while the rich boys who did it get away. The poor man goes to prison, in this case, the high-security Belmarsh prison, with which Mr Archer has an occasion to be familiar with, while the rich boys go on with their successful lives.

“I am innocent,” says Danny Cartwright to everyone who listens to him, but in prison, everyone proclaims his innocence and few if any believe him. However, in Danny’s case, there is this one person who steadfastly believes in him, and in his innocence. She is Beth Wilson, the very woman Danny had proposed to the night her brother was murdered in a street fight.

Danny seeks to better himself with the help of his cellmate, Sir Nicholas Moncrieff, who teaches him proper English—reading, writing and speaking. When Nicholas is killed just before he is to be paroled, Danny, with some help, manages to assume his identity and is soon released from prison, free to claim Nicholas’ considerable inheritance. Now he has the means to plot his revenge against the original perpetrators of the crime—Spencer Craig, an attorney; Larry Davenport, a popular TV actor, and Gerald Payne, an investment dealer. The fourth conspirator, Toby Mortimer, an aristocratic addict, has died in the meanwhile.

Revenge is best served cold, and the three musketeers, really don’t know what hit them. But, then Danny also makes his share of mistakes and lands up in the slammer. Will he get out of it? You have to read the book to find out.

Archer has taken a tale that stretches readers’ imagination a bit, but he has come up with a page-turner. The readers of Archer’s 14th novel find it smooth reading, a tribute to the many revisions of the draft that the author says his books go through. Some critics are having a field day making much of the similarity between A Prisoner of Birth and Dumas’s masterpiece, The Count of Monte Cristo, and finding a lack of depth and of appreciation of “unrootedness” that becomes a major cost of reinventing oneself like Danny did. However, this will not detract the Archer loyalists in any way.

We can see reflections of life—his and what we can relate with—in the characters that he brings out. They are the usual suspects, rich men, powerful women, political figures, judges, lawyers and cops. The life of the author has been full of ups and downs. In 1974, he was on the brink of bankruptcy, and resigned from the British House of Commons when he wrote his first book, Not a Penny More, not a Penny Less. It became a bestseller, and he shot back to fame.

In 1987 he emerged victorious in court after he successfully took on tabloid newspapers which said he had paid for a prostitute. He was made a Lord in 1992. In 2001, however, he was convicted of perjury in connection with the 1987 case, and sentenced to four years in jail. He was released after two years.

All this provides the author with a wealth of experience to draw upon while writing his books. The twists and turns in the plot propel you on and if Lord Archer is back at the top of the bestseller charts, he deserves to be.

This review was printed in The Tribune on Sunday, April 13, 2008.