Tell Tale by Jeffrey Archer (Short Story Collection, October 2017).
One of the great British crime novelists of the current era, Jeffrey Archer also writes outstanding short stories. This is his first new collection in about a decade and features a wide-ranging variety of stories, including several truly outstanding efforts.
Locales and subject matters covered in this collection are nicely varied. Archer gets to play interesting literary games with his readers, as well–including in two short-short tales (“Unique” and “The Perfect Murder”) each told in exactly 100 snappy words apiece. He also employs twist endings quite often–a literary form that in lesser hands can seem heavyhanded, obvious or strained. But not in Archer’s case! The last line twists he typically unleashes on us here tend to be deliciously subtle, appropriate, sharply witty and highly effective.
As to specifics, let’s start with “Who killed The Mayor?” Like a majority of the 14 stories included here, it was inspired by real events. A city-bred police detective is sent to investigate the murder of the thug who’d recently seized control of a quaint little village in the Italian countryside. The victim was so hated that, rather than no suspects, pretty much everyone in the place is only too anxious to take credit for eliminating the creep. Charming local color is on abundant display here and the dutiful detective “goes native” to the point that he quits investigating and finds the love of his life–only to stumble across the unwelcome truth about whodunit in an especially nifty, understated last line.
In “View of Auvers-Sur-Oise,” a squad of British cops seem about to fail to nail a notorious local gangster yet again–until a sharpeyed rookie officer’s knowledge of fine art gives them an unexpected opening.
“A Gentleman and a Scholar” serves as a very pleasing, non-crime change of pace. It recounts in touching fashion the joyful last hurrah of an American Shakespeare Professor who overcame gender discrimination to win acclaim and the affection of generations of students/future professors.
“All’s Fair in Love and War” offers up multiple twists and turns involving (well, both elements mentioned in the title). It’s the insufferable, self-satisfied and self-important “Squire” Dawson versus goodhearted but poor Jamie Carrigan, both after the same lovely girl, Beth. Dawson’s title and wealth seem to win out, until World War Two intervenes. Beth realizes her mistake and has an affair with Jamie. Then Dawson, an officer on the basis of his social class, gets the chance for revenge–sending Corporal Jamie on a near-suicide mission. But things work out for the best in the end.
A particularly unusual scam is in play in “The Car Park Attendant” and readers will be anything but disappointed when the delightfully harmless con artist couple involved escape punishment.
“A Wasted Hour” seems a pleasant enough, if slightly minor diversion into character study realms–until the last paragraph. That’s when the indentity of the driver who picked up the hitchhiking college student puts a marvelous spin on things.
Perhaps the most emotionally powerful tale here is “The Road to Damascus.” For much of it the story seems another character study (and a very readable one). WW Two and its aftermath is again featured here. But it’s another understated/potent last line, taking place in a site infamous for the savagery that humans are capable of inflicting on others, that will knock the reader back on his/her heels.
Cheating spouses and disloyal friends betray one another repaetedly and wantonly in “The Cuckold.”
Another con artist husband and wife team’s ever-expanding insurance scams finally catch up with them in “The Holiday of a Lifetime,” only for once Archer couldn’t decide on a single denoument. According, he’s written three different endings and presents all three for the audience to decide between. Alas, I find it’s a rare misstep on the author’s part. Why couldn’t he decide between the various possibilities? Because, at least for this reader, all three are letdowns, not quite working (and this after a suitably entertaining balance of the story).
“Double or Quits” is a twisty piece of business about a scam pulled on a Monte Carlo casino. Enjoy.
In “The Senior Vice President,” a much-put-upon bank exec works a complicated revenge when he finds himself being put out to pasture. It’s actually a most enjoyable example of multiple people getting away several forms of larceny at once. Yet one offhand and unrelated comment bothered me. Mr. Dunbar, while a native Scot, has lived in Toronto quite a while. When he learns of his impending forced retirement, the mild gentleman is said to curse, as he hadn’t done “since the Toronto Maple Leafs lost” a Stanley Cup playoff game “during the last minute of extra time.” Sorry, Mr. Archer: You’re English and know plenty about cricket and soccer (as shown in countless references in other stories). But as all true NHL fans know, the hockey term is “overtime” and there’s no such things as “the last minute” of it–if nobody scores in one 20-minute overtime period, it’s just onto another and another, until a sudden death goal finally ends it. A very minor attempt at verisimilitude (a kind of thing Archer usually nails). But that only makes the incorrect idiom doubly jarring, as Archer normally gets all his details right.
“A Good Toss to Lose” takes us from the days leading up to the First World War to a gesture unexpected human decency amid the carnage. It should be heartwarming, but Archer tacks on a postscript that, if it doesn’t render what’s come before futile, at the very least demonstrates the ironic hopeless madness of war.
As a final extra, Archer has the opening section of his upcoming novel (Heads You Win) on hand to round out the book (and get us all pumped up to read the thing, upon its November 2018 publication date). It seems to be a Cold War spy thing and , yes, I await it eagerly.
This is one of the best single author collections I’ve read in years. Definitely recommended.