The 12th commandment: never read a book penned by Jeffrey Archer

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A conundrum to trouble the conscience of an angel: do the usual rules governing fair play - not kicking a man when he's down, etc - have any application in morality when that man is Jeffrey Archer? Quick answer: no. Not only is it proper to kick him when he's down, it also behoves us to go through his pockets.

Schadenfreude? I think not. For Schadenfreude means malicious enjoyment of the discomfiture of others and I am not sure we think of Archer as "other" except in the sense of his being alien, from the planet Bogus. Nor is malice quite the word for what we've been enjoying. Relief, rather, that at last someone unfit for an influential job in politics is not going to get it.

A sentiment with which this column would normally be delighted to concur before moving on to higher things. This time, though, we too want a piece of the action. As titles and insignia fall from Archer like leaves from a wintry tree - turn again Archer, no more mayor of London, member of the Conservative Party, or even plausible rogue - one designation goes on sticking. Millionaire novelist. On the question of his being a millionaire I have nothing to say. It is hardly an honorific anyway. But in the matter of his being called a novelist I have strong views. And that, to put it at its plainest, is because he isn't one.

I have recently read the latest Jeffrey Archer, such is my conscientiousness, and I know whereof I speak. The Eleventh Commandment it is called, that being, by a happy coincidence, Thou Shalt Not Be Caught. A commandment which, once you've handed over your pounds 5.99 for the paperback, you have already broken. It is bad, then, this book? Reader, empty your mind of bad, for bad might just have turned out good, whereas The Eleventh Commandment is as a black hole in space that could never have turned out otherwise. If I do not say it is as stupid a book as was ever written, that is only because Archer has written others.

The hero of The Eleventh Commandment, not that I think you want to know, is a paid assassin for the CIA, "a pro", "one of the best there is". When people speak of him they say he is "a pro", and recognise they are dealing with "one of the best there is". Mainly he lives in a world where people are less of a pro than he is, but occasionally he runs up against someone who is more. This provides an element of surprise. As a young man he fell in love at first sight with the woman who is now his wife, for the reason that he could not "take his eyes off those long, slim legs". Other than that she loves him for being one of the best there is, no further insights are offered into the longevity of their marriage. One recalls the judge's summing up in the Monica Coghlan case: what use could a man with a wife so fragrant have for a whore? So maybe in Archer's world a smell and a slim leg explain all the mysteries of the erotic life. Certainly there are those in The Eleventh Commandment who do not inspire devotion or arousal, and to a woman they are wanting in the slim leg department.

Confusion in Archer is expressed, uniformly, by the use of the word "but" followed by dots, all other emotions by the phrase "Oh my God, no!" Though sometimes, as when the assassin comes back from the dead in a twist you'd have to be as dumb as a judge not to have anticipated, this changes to "Oh my God, yes!"

Checking off how we're going so far against Jane Austen's famous enumeration of a novel's contents - "the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour... conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" - we have Archer nul points for knowledge of human behaviour, and languishing behind Norway when it comes to delineating its varieties. Of wit and humour, of course, he has not a trace, despite that personal puckishness beloved of those who tell lies for him. Which leaves us with language.

Remember slim and long as a description of legs? You won't be surprised, then, when a short, squat judge in a long black gown stares up at a clear blue sky prior to walking down a long marble corridor and sitting in a large leather chair. Archer, speaking of chairs, rather fancies himself on the subject in an Antiques Roadshow-y sort of way. A chair which Catherine the Great bought from the estate of Robert Walpole in 1779 provides him with an opportunity to flash his connoisseurship. "Plush" is finally the word he comes up.

Some evocations, though, are too good to do only once. Page 11 has a victim going down, "fragments of bone, muscle and tissue flying in every direction". 350 pages later, when another falls, "fragments of muscle and bone were scattered in every direction". No mention of brain in either instance, notice.

So if he can't think, can't imagine, can't amuse and can't write, how come anyone ever willingly ventured into the black hole of Archer's prose in the first place? Not a permissible question. We turn a blind eye to the trash people read, lest we appear proscriptive. But if we don't care about the books, why should we care about the man? Either vacuity is an evil or it isn't. Or is it only civic probity that matters, and to hell with the respect we owe our minds?

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