Book review: The Sins of the Father

SUSPEND your disbelief and you won’t be able to put this overblown family melodrama down

In 1991 I published a novel with the title, The Sins of the Father. I originally wanted to call it Eichmann’s Children, but the marketing department of my publishers were not enthusiastic. So The Sins of the Father it was. My elder teenage son was not impressed. “That’s a rotten title, Dad ” he said, “it’s a Jeffrey Archer title”. It seems he was right, for here, 21 years later, is a novel with that title from Lord Archer, volume two of a sequence, The Clifton Chronicles.

I haven’t read its predecessor, Only Time Will Tell which apparently told the story of Harry Clifton’s rise from the backstreets of Bristol to high society, but I don’t think this matters. Archer, “The Number One Bestseller”, as his publishers bill him, is a sufficiently canny and experienced old hand to make the new novel complete in itself, and the events more or less comprehensible without benefit of what has gone before. On the other hand the ending is left open; you won’t know the outcome of a curious debate in the House of Lords till volume three. This is good marketing, the hook nicely baited for eager readers.

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The novel has a Victorian flavour, a variation on the old “missing heir” theme. The hero, Harry, and the heroine, Emma Barrington, were, one gathers, on the very point of being married (with a child already on the way) when just impediment was declared, on the grounds that Harry was perhaps the illegitimate son of Emma’s rich, well-born, but scoundrelly father, Hugo. This must (I think) have been the climax of the first novel.

This one opens with Harry believed drowned at sea and under arrest under another name in the USA. A famous, but crooked, New York lawyer, called Jelks (a pleasantly Dickensian-sounding name) comes to represent him. The man with whom Harry has apparently switched identities, Lieutenant Tom Bradshaw of the US Navy, is accused of murdering his brother. Jelks, employed by the Bradshaw parents, gets the murder charged dropped, and in exchange Harry is persuaded to plead guilty to a charge of desertion from the Navy. He gets six years, rather more than Jelks has promised him. I should have thought a case of desertion would have come up before a naval court-martial, but perhaps they do things differently in the USA, or at least in Archerland. So Harry goes to prison where he does very well, securing a job in the library and writing a prison diary which is entrusted to a fellow-con who, on being released, publishes it as his own work, and it becomes a bestseller.

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Meanwhile, back in wartime England, Emma refuses to accept that Harry is dead, and determines to make her way to the USA to find out what has happened to him. She would know a bit more if Harry’s mother, Maisie, an admirable woman, had opened the letter Harry, as Tom Bradshaw, sent her, but Maisie is illiterate and it just sits on her mantelpiece. No matter. Emma gets to New York, leaving their infant son in Nanny’s care, and sets to work unravelling the mystery and exposing the twerp who has stolen Harry’s book. This is all great fun.

There are war scenes too, involving Emma’s brother Giles in North Africa. Giles is also Harry’s best friend and the heir to the Barrington baronetcy and family fortune, unless Harry, older by a few months, is indeed the villainous Hugo’s son. I should have thought his illegitimacy, if Hugo was his father, would have debarred him; but seemingly not, in Archerland anyway, because we don’t want to spoil a good story. Harry too gets into the war, having been sprung from prison and enrolled in the US Special Forces. The war scenes are pretty good, even if they don’t have much to do with the main plot.

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This revolves round Hugo, quite the most satisfying character in the novel, a real Victorian bad baronet, liar, thief, bully and coward. All the scenes in which Hugo appears are extremely enjoyable, and one might even wish for more of them. The author has great fun with him; it would be a shame to reveal more of his story. It’s enough to say that even Sherlock Holmes encountered few such scoundrels, though the Great Detective did come across more ingenious ones.

Probability is not, one must admit, Lord Archer’s strong point. He is a master of fiction: his good characters are flawless, his bad ones have no redeeming qualities. Some you are invited to cheer, others to hiss, in the best style of melodrama.

Any analysis could make the novel appear a tissue of absurdities. But it doesn’t matter. Jeffrey Archer has the strange gift denied to many who think themselves more serious novelists. He can tell a story, and he does so with such conviction, such appealing naivety, that you suspend disbelief, and read happily on. I have to confess I enjoyed it enormously, and can confidently state that it is one of the two best novels to have the title The Sins of the Father.

• The Sins of the Father

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by Jeffrey Archer

Macmillan, 384pp, £18.99