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Nine people you run into in gaol

Jeffrey Archer?s new collection shows that crime does pay.

india Updated: Oct 30, 2006 17:02 IST

Cat O’Nine Tales
Author:
Jeffrey Archer
Publisher: Pan
Format: Paperback
Pages: 255
Price: Rs 299

Jeffrey Archer could well be one of the characters in his latest collection of short stories, Cat O’ Nine Tales. Genial and chatty, with a sophisticated sense of timing, and an engaging wit, these conmen are sure to appeal.

Archer, no stranger to the British penal system himself, picked up these true stories from people he met in jail and shortly afterwards. Just how much is true, and how much is lavishly embellished (after all, Archer was convicted for perjury) remains to be seen. But they are vintage Jeffrey Archer in style: winsome, clean and urbane. Which is no mean feat, considering that they allude to some of life’s horrid dealings, such as murder, blackmail and larceny.

This is the sixth collection of short stories by Jeffrey Archer, and has artist Ronald Searle as illustrator. Nine of the stories are told by convicts, while three others deal with people outside the coop. What all of them have in common is a typical twist in the tale that leaves you shaking your head over the eccentricities of the human spirit.

In 'A Greek Tragedy', Archer writes: “Let me say at this point that the tired old cliché, that there’s a book in every one of us, is a fallacy However, I have come to accept over the years that most people have experienced a single incident in their life that is unique to them, and well worthy of a short story And so we are returned,” to the glazed world of O. Henry and Saki, a kind of ecosystem of amiable people, sometimes naïve, some times wicked and always interesting.

The typical Archer preoccupations are present. Art — an enduring theme in his work, first novel onwards — is seen in 'The Red King', and 'In the Eye of the Beholder', where the pursuit of objets d’art both perverts and enriches the pursuer. There is much ado made about linking together dissimilar people, so the meek RAF recruit Chris marries Corporal Sue in 'The Man Who Robbed His Own Post Office'. And the suave yet largely unremarkable Gian Lorenzo is spectator to the dizzying turns in the life of Paolo Castelli, former captain of Roma and ninth richest man in Italy. But most typical of all is Archer’s sheer delight in deferred revelation. So, in 'The Wisdom of Solomon', or 'Don’t Drink the Water' the suspense is resolved only in the last paragraph.

Cat O’ Nine Tales, born mostly of the experience of being incarcerated, just goes to show that in some cases, crime does pay. Free of censure, it is a wicked wink at the ordinary men and women who make up society because there is a story in most of them. Archer seems to hint often that the only difference between being respectable and being scandalous is being caught.