26 November 2005

THE HOT SEAT

The greatest Tory ever sold

Jeffrey Archer has made millions out of a winning way with epic tales – and lived one himself, writes MICHAEL DUFFY.

Jeffrey Archer got the idea for his latest novel after the September 11, 2001, attacks. “I saw in The New York Times that police thought between 20 and 50 people in the World Trade Centre weren’t killed,” he recalls. “They just disappeared, to get away from their debts or their marriage or whatever. That was interesting. But I thought it would be more interesting if you got away because you wanted to do something good, to reverse something you thought was wrong.”

At the time Archer was in jail for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. He brooded on the idea but put nothing to paper. His time in prison was a break from novel writing.

On his release in July 2003, he returned to his desk and it felt like he was starting all over again. “I haven’t worked harder on a book in my life,” he says from his country residence near Cambridge. “I’m passionate again about writing. This is important to me; it’s got to be the comeback book.”

Archer will be in Australia next week to promote False Impression. It’s the story of an art expert, Anna Petrescu, who leaves Sotheby’s under a cloud and takes a job with an art-loving private banker. She discovers he has lent a lot of money to an English aristocrat in the hope of ruining her so he can get his hands on her version of van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. It’s just one of the methods used by the banker to assemble an impressive art collection. When all else fails, he resorts to the services of a pint-sized Romanian gymnast with a passion for sharp knives. Archer has an impressive art collection himself, which includes a Glover and works by Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. “I do greatly admire Australian artists,” he says. “They’re very under priced… They’re very, very good buys.”

The collection also contains work by Picasso, Pissarro and Bonnard, but nothing – yet – by van Gogh.

In False Impression, Anna’s office is in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre and she uses the September 11 attacks to go underground to try to foil her boss’s plans. There follows an intricate and extremely fast chase around the world, involving the art expert, an FBI agent and the gymnast. It achieves the literary equivalent of the adrenaline rush for which Archer is famous. The scenes are short and alternate between characters, and most scenes end on a note of triumph or despair, preferably unexpected. It sounds easy when you reduce it to a formula, but if anyone could do it Archer wouldn’t have sold 120 million books since he started writing 30 years ago.

He is an accidental novelist. In 1974, he had everything he wanted. A successful businessman and Conservative Member of Parliament, he was married to Mary, a brilliant scientist, and they had two children. But they went broke with enormous debts when Archer invested all his own and some friends’ money in a fraudulent venture. Faced with the prospect of bankruptcy, he stood down from Parliament. His company collapsed. He was depressed and couldn’t find a job.

Archer decided to write a book. A revenge fantasy. “I didn’t do it with the idea of making a lot of money,” he says. “I just thought the story of four young men losing their fortune and sitting down and deciding to steal it back was a good idea. At the time I couldn’t get a job and I was desperate to be occupied, so I got on with it rather than silting down and staring out the window.”

In the event, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less did make money. So did the next one, Shall We Tell the President? As for the third, it was called Kane and Abel and went to No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. The Archers were now seriously rich and bought the Old Vicarage at Grantchester, outside Cambridge.

Kane and Abel was published in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. Author and prime minister were both thrusting, self-made people from the middle classes and the ’80s suited them. Archer continued to publish successful books and used his fame for the party’s cause. In 1985, he was rewarded for his support by being made Conservative deputy chairman.

In 1987, Archer sued the Daily Star newspaper for claiming he had had sex with a prostitute. He produced an alibi and won £500,000 in damages. He resigned from the deputy chairman’s position, but was made a life peer by John Major in 1992. In 2000, a friend and Archer’s former secretary told police he had fabricated his alibi in the 1987 case. The secretary had forged diary entries at Archer’s request but, unknown to him, she kept copies of the forgeries and the originals. (In False Impression, the banker’s secretary also keeps copies of her employer’s wrongdoings.)

In June 2001, Archer was sentenced to four years in jail. The worst thing at first was the noise, he says now. “You never got a night’s sleep.” Then there were the people: “I spent my first three weeks there on a wing with 21 murderers. I met some very evil people there but also some men who’d had no upbringing, no chance in life. One man had been buggered from the age of six to 16, and then he murdered a pedophile. Maybe if you or I had been through that we might do the same. How can we know? How can you even judge?” He says he still visits the man in jail every month.

To keep busy he wrote three volumes of prison diaries, which have just been published as one volume. He also wrote a screenplay about George Mallory, an English mountaineer who, Archer says, got within 240 metres of conquering Everest in 1924 dressed in a three-piece suit and carrying a pickaxe and a rolled umbrella.

Bruce Beresford wants to direct the film and has organised a dinner party for Archer during his visit to Australia. “It’s a great script,” Beresford says. “He researched it brilliantly – I guess he had plenty of time as he was in jail.”

Archer’s wife once said, “Life with Jeffrey has never been dull”, but things do seem to have calmed down lately for the 65-year-old. He recently attended Baroness Thatcher’s 80th birthday bash, along with the Queen. He spends eight hours a day writing and is a serious jogger (he ran for Britain when he was a student). Last year he completed the London Marathon in five hours and 23 minutes. “The last eight miles were agony,” he says. “But I had to finish.” He was passed by a camel, a phone box and a girl walking, and says he’s now sworn off marathons. But he still trains six days a week, with the help of an Australian coach, and won’t let travel interfere: “I’ve even had my program sent ahead to Australia.”

Archer has done many things in a picaresque life: in 2000 he even wrote a play, The Accused, and acted in it for about five months. But what he really wanted when he was young was a successful political career. (He once famously said: “When I was three, I wanted to be four. When I was four, I wanted to be prime minister.”) He didn’t get there, but the life he ended up living has been at least as extraordinary, a creation, like the books, fuelled by his energy and hunger for fame. He has long been a target for British journalists, appalled by the sight of a hugely successful, Tory, popular novelist. His various peccadilloes haven’t helped, yet the only people they have really damaged have been himself and his wife. And as the American critic John O’Sullivan notes, alongside the faults, Archer is also “kind, generous, energetic, loyal, and a good friend”. He is returning to Australia just after Christmas (his seventh visit) to conduct a charity auction.

Raw confidence and enthusiasm continue to be the dominant impression of the man. He comes across, a bit like his books, as a fairly uncomplicated blast of sensation, a force of nature. And, of course, there’s his talent, about which he is realistic. “Story-telling is a gift in itself,” he says. “There are many fine writers around. But telling a story is a totally different gift.”

QUICK QUESTIONS

CAREER HIGH? Being involved at a minor level in Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories.

CAREER LOW? Being conned of all my money in 1974.

LEAST-KNOWN TALENT? Charity auctioneer.

CREDO? “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” (Longfellow)