"A Matter of Honour" and "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less" by Jeffrey Archer (1976/1986)
"He set off at a brisk pace towards the Old Kent Road, conspicuous in his black coat and pin-striped trousers. He tapped his umbrella nervously before hailing a passing taxi."
The introductory page to this two-novel volume confidently asserts that Jeffrey Archer is a "master storyteller." What this page doesn't assert, however, is the fact that Mr. Archer is a baron, that he was a member of Parliament for several years, and that he had to resign his seat in the wake of a financial scandal. Writing novels was a means of reviving his fortunes after his departure from government.
You may have noticed that there is a wide gap between the publication dates of these two books. The first book, A Matter of Honour, was published in 1976 after Archer lost most of his money in a fraudulent investment scheme. The second book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less was written when Archer's fortunes were on the rise, not long after he was appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party. Much of Archer's fiction reflects his personal struggles, and these books are no exception.
In A Matter of Honour, a young man is willed a Russian icon after the death of his father. What he doesn't know is that the icon hides a document which could, if released in time, alter the complexion of U.S./Russia relations. The Russians, eager to apprehend the document before it becomes invalid, send a KGB agent to retrieve it from the young man's hands.
On the whole it's an adequate spy novel that made me long for Ian Fleming. Any sense of suspense is ruined by the improbabilities that litter the plot. By the end of the book the KGB agent assumes a nearly supernatural aspect, in that he appears almost out of the blue, anywhere, with little explanation.
In Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less four young men are swindled out of their money by a rich American, and in revenge they invent their own schemes for winning the money back. The author clearly drew upon his own experience for this novel, and for the most part it's very convincing.
I found the scheme set in Oxford to be the weakest part of the book. In this part the rich American's actions don't always seem consistent with his character. Would he really have been so impressed by Oxford traditions? Would he really have remained so credulous throughout? The ending to this novel is also a bit unsatisfying, and seems like a bit of cheat.
This said, I think Jeffrey Archer's a good writer. I'd be happy to seek out some of his other books. I enjoyed the humor in his stories, and also his light touch with the characters. At times he reminded me of Anthony Trollope.
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