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Jeffrey Archer draws on his jail time to write 'A Prisoner of Birth'

Given the Eliot Spitzer news, what British novelist Jeffrey Archer did and lied about in the late 1980s seems tame.

Yes, he slept with a prostitute.

His mistake was calling a false witness when he sued the newspaper that outed him. More than a decade later that "witness" confessed to the media, leading to perjury charges in the early 2000s, Sir Jeffrey's conviction and a four-year prison term.

For the novelist, unfortunate events are never wasted, and writing well is the best revenge. Having been released on parole after two years, Archer is making up for time served. His new novel, A Prisoner of Birth, is about an innocent working-class Brit sent to jail for something he didn't do.

Author credentials on the book jacket include "five years in Britain's House of Commons, fourteen years in the House of Lords and two in Her Majesty's prisons."

Filled with detail, from courtroom fireworks to the tiresome restrictions put on a man out on parole, A Prisoner of Birth is an exercise in wish fulfillment. The good may suffer, but the bad will get theirs in the end. The fun is watching it unfold.

Americans don't like to talk about social class, but it's an issue here. Imagine The Count of Monte Cristo and Pygmalion fused at tremendous speeds.

The novel begins with the murder of working-class Danny Cartwright's best friend by one of four upper-class twits, and it takes off when Danny is falsely accused.

He even has an apparent motive: The death of his pregnant fiancee's brother leaves Danny in charge of the family garage. His fledgling lawyer is no match for the seasoned prosecuting attorney. The trial won't take long.

Buddies at Oxford, the "witnesses" include a brutish but glib barrister who is headed for Parliament, a soap opera star who could be played by the young Richard Chamberlain, a high-end real estate salesman and a rich weakling who happens to be a junkie.

In the courtroom, class is definitely an issue. Scruffy Danny talks like Eliza Doolittle before Henry Higgins took her in hand. The only person who believes him is his girlfriend, Beth. Even her dad thinks Danny did the job.

From there it's a hop, skip and a jump to Belmarsh prison, which has been called Britain's Guantanamo. Archer details prison regulations, security measures and the strictly regimented days behind bars as no outsider could. He is, however, also an accomplished yarn-spinner who knows how to sink the hook that keeps the reader racing along to find out what happens next.

Danny has an agenda: to clear himself and to get revenge on the posh foursome who put him in jail. Archer supplies him with two unlikely but useful cellmates: Big Al, a burly Army driver who knows the ropes, and aristocratic Nick Moncrieff, a titled Scot who looks uncannily like Danny — if Danny cleaned himself up. Nick keeps a detailed prison diary that will be useful later (Archer has already published his). He likes Danny, and takes him in hand.

One of the first things Nick does is clean up Danny's pronunciation. Next come table manners, instructions in what to say and which fork to use, followed by a haircut, and a squint at those diaries and Nick's own story, which neatly dovetails with Danny's. To tell any more would be to spoil the fun.

Meanwhile, false witnesses collude and the real perp conspires to keep Danny behind bars, which, given our hero's agenda, seems like a good career move. Danny has enemies inside Belmarsh and out; lined up on his side are a warden and his young attorney, who began by doubting his client's innocence but now believes in it.

There is as well Fraser Munro, a seasoned Scots barrister who comes to Danny's defense. His speech on Danny's behalf makes clear that over the past few years Archer has thought long and hard about the class system and, more important, the gray area that blurs the lines between law, justice and the truth.

The old man says, "I have discovered with advancing years that things are not entirely black or white, but more often different shades of gray. I can best sum it up, my lord, by saying that it was an honor to have served Sir Nicholas Moncrieff and it has been a privilege to work with Mr. Cartwright. They are both oaks, even if they were planted in different forests. But then, m'lord, we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth."

The pleasure comes in watching Archer crack Danny out.

Kit Reed's next novel, "Enclave," will be published this winter; "The Night Children," her first book for young readers, is due out in the fall.

A Prisoner of Birth

By Jeffrey Archer

St. Martin's Press, 501 pages, $27.95

Jeffrey Archer draws on his jail time to write 'A Prisoner of Birth' 04/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 11:53am]
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