Jeffrey Archer is just small beer compared with his thriller-writing peers. Mat Coward reports; The Eleventh Commandment by Jeffrey Archer HarperCollins, pounds 16.99
There are two apparent mysteries about Jeffrey Archer's books. One is why they sell so well, when they are only mediocre examples of their type. The other is why they are so violently despised, when they are, after all, only mediocre.

Neither is hard to solve. Archer's novels are hated for the same reason that they sell: because of who and what he is, not what or how he writes. His books are commented upon because everyone in the media either loathes him or wants to suck up to him.

It is clearly righteous to loathe Archer. He is unquestionably one of Beelzebub's minions (though not, probably, so senior a minion as he would have us believe). He is not just bad, or just a prat: he is a bad prat. But he is also a victim of snobbery. Many of his parliamentary colleagues have written atrocious thrillers and got away with it. Archer's are a bit dull, but not atrocious.

The Eleventh Commandment is decently written, if a little flat. It's the readable story of a liberal US president at war with a right-wing CIA chief. These two antagonists use as their cat's-paws a gullible CIA assassin, and a Stalinist president of Russia who longs to restart the Cold War. Meanwhile, his Russian Mafia is up to its (already old) tricks, while Australia is about to elect its first president, and London its first mayor.

The plot is rather slow, virtually twistless, and contains too many structural weaknesses of the "Why Doesn't He Just...?" type - those points where alert readers notice that a simple, logical act by one of the characters, such as a timely phone call, could bring about a premature happy ending.

The book's sympathies are broadly with the liberals against Reaganites. Nothing of Archer himself comes through; presumably, there is nothing there to come through. This seems to be a novel written by a man who wears opinions but does not feel them.

When uninformed readers go looking for an international thriller, they buy Archer simply because he has become a kind of brand name. Among regular thriller readers, he is largely unread. There are any number of superbly written, entertaining and thought-provoking international thrillers available. Ross Thomas's, for instance, were among the best US novels of their time. But sadly, I doubt that many Archer readers explore the genre beyond Archer: if they did, they would be done with him, as the man who has once tasted real ale will forswear lite lager.

Archer's books are not unputdownable, nor unpickupable - just unremarkable, and forgotten as soon as they are finished. The same anti-epitaph, I suspect, will eventually be applied to the author himself.