Jeffrey Archer: 'I met half a dozen hitmen in jail'

This week, the irrepressible Jeffrey Archer publishes his first novel since being released from prison. And, as John Walsh discovers, a spell behind bars has broadened his social circle in unexpected ways...
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Meeting Jeffrey Archer is a weirdly theatrical experience. Riding the lift that bears you to his stage-set on the 13th floor of a Thames-side apartment block, you have no idea of the histrionic passion and drama that will engulf you. The lift stops at a front door, which is opened by an unsmiling female flunky in a black suit and white shirt, who hangs up your coat and ushers you on stage.

What a set! The production team have created a white marble penthouse interior overlooking the river, with lots of expensive-seeming furniture and a few dozen artworks you've seen before, in exhibitions at Tate Britain. The male lead is discovered seated in a deep, cuboid armchair reading a Sotheby's sale catalogue. He greets you with a look of what-have-we-here? scrutiny, as if you might be about to burgle his safe or insult his wife.

The famous Archer brow is creased with concentration - spectacularly cross-hatched like a Piranesi etching. The initial dialogue is tentative. We discover a shared taste in cufflinks: his feature Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, mine a photograph of Marlene Dietrich. "I knew her, you know," says Archer. "She was amazing." I admire his posh-casual monogrammed slippers. "They're Somerset," he says, proudly. You mean they're owned by the, er, Duke of Somerset? "Somerset Cricket Club," he says kindly.

We talk about his famously fragrant wife, Mary, who is at their house in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, "desperately trying to raise money for Addenbrooke's Hospital". And we talk about fiction. We're getting along splendidly until, out of the blue, he yells at me, "WOULD YOU GET ME THE HH MUNRO STORIES, ALISON?" I'm startled by this coup de théâtre. Has he gone mad? But then there's an answering call from somewhere in the upper circle of his flat, and the monochrome coat-checker appears, holding the book. Oddly, she is not Alison. She seems to be called Paula. In the next hour, both ladies will be heard jumping to obey their master's sudden, capricious requirements.

We talk about his new book, False Impression, a thriller set in the hinterland where art treasures, iffy bankers and midget assassins converge. The plot involves an art dealer called Anna, on the run from her nasty boss Fenston, who suckers plutocrats into taking huge loans on compound interest, accepts their Titians and Pollocks as collateral, and then sends the homicidal Krantz, a former Olympic athlete, to finish them off with a kitchen knife. But the book also takes a risk by including the events of 9/11 as a plot device. It's such a delicate subject, you'd think it could only be cheapened by a thriller. But Archer acquits himself surprisingly well. He slows things down to evoke Anna's panicky progress down 85 flights of stairs - meeting firemen, invalids and blind people with dogs, seeing people staying in offices to finish their calls - and you feel time passing, the boredom and the suspense.

Had people complained about his using the Twin Towers as a thriller backdrop? "I was concerned, when I sent the book to my New York publisher," says Archer. "But they rang up and said, 'There's only one change we want in this book. We want more on 9/11 - we're ready to take it as an historic document now'. ALISON, DO YOU REMEMBER I TOOK IT FROM 30 TO 20 PAGES, AND THEN PUT IT BACK TO 30?" There's a murmur of assent from the celestial regions above. Is the shadowy Alison listening in to every word?

Archer has always nursed a small grievance about reviewers consigning him to the bins marked "thriller writer" and "storyteller" rather than the shelves marked "novelist". He famously asked his first publisher, Tom Maschler, if he (Maschler) thought that, once day, he (Archer) might win the Nobel Prize. So he is excited by the positive reactions to his new book. "American reviews described it as 'poignant'. What worries me is that, for my next book, should I be trying to write like that all the time?" His brow disappears behind a cat's-cradle of worry-lines. "You can't do that all the time in a thriller, because nobody would stay with it. But snooties like you think there's some crime in trying to keep things moving in a book." He considers for a moment. "I mean, I could slow the whole thing down and bore you to tears..." Thanks, Jeffrey, for the kind offer.

In prison, he learnt several things, some of them helpful to a thriller writer. "The cheapest hitmen are Russians. If I wanted you bumped off, the best thing would be pay a Russian £5,000. I met half-a-dozen in Belmarsh." There were 71 murderers on his wing, some of them in denial. "There was the man who said, 'Hey, there was something in The Sun today, about me being in the cell next to you. They called me a bloody murderer. I'm not. It's a mistake.' I said, 'Tell me about it.' He said, 'I was in a pub, a bit tanked up, this Aussie bastard annoyed me so I knifed him, didn't I? And I was 'ad up for murder.' I asked, 'How many times did you knife him?' It was 22. He kept saying, 'You tell them I'm not a bloody murderer.'"

He learnt that his fellow prisoner Barry George - convicted for the murder of Archer's friend Jill Dando - was thought by all, prisoners and warders alike, to be innocent of the killing. "Every time his name came up, they said, he is so stupid, he couldn't even have found the front door." He found that 70 per cent of the prison population are illiterate. Archer goes into Recovering Politician mode: "I've begged the Home Secretary that, when you get a young, illiterate first offender doing a two-year sentence, why not say, instead of cleaning floors or peeling potatoes, you must learn to read and write. And if you pass a literacy test, you'll get out two months early."

He got a job in the prison hospital "because I was one of only three people who didn't take drugs". They trusted him with the key to the medicine cabinet. "I worked with six doctors and learnt all about drugs. I now know a lot about heroin and cocaine." Did he ever feel like trying them, to see what the attraction was? Archer is outraged. "No, I did not. Absolutely not. What a complete insult to your body, that you would ask it if it could handle this evil stuff. Just because you have, doesn't mean I have to."

He laughs, gleefully. He is a master of the genial insult. But of course it's typical that he should consider his body a temple. For an egomaniac like Archer, everything about his life and possessions is touched with divinity. His sales are world-beating. His books are best-selling. His art deals are the finest available. His friends are the aristocrats of British society. When I asked him to sign his book and offered my humble ballpoint, he rejected it ("ALISON, BRING ME A GOOD PEN WOULD YOU?"). When it came, it was a plastic Uni-ball - nice, but hardly a Montblanc Meisterstucke. "I write in longhand and I'm always looking out for pens," he says, "and this is without doubt the finest in the world." You suspect that, if he had a prawn sandwich for lunch, it would, merely because he was eating it, be the finest prawn sandwich in the world.

This is Jeffrey Archer's comeback tour. The former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, and life peer since 1992, hit a career wall in 1999. He was forced to quit his candidature for Mayor of London after it was revealed that he'd made up an alibi in his 1987 libel case. Banned from the Tory party for five years, he was found guilty of perjury in July 2001 and sentenced to four years in jail. He served two, and was released in July 2003. Since then he's been uncharacteristically quiet, apart from publishing three volumes of prison diaries and giving the Tories sleepless nights by announcing his readiness to return to them. But will they want him back? Will his friends in high places - the ones who used to attend his Krug 'n' shepherd's pie parties every summer - disown him? And how can he have the fathomless cheek to return to public life after being ruined, condemned, trashed and comprehensively nuked by the press, Commons and the general public on so many occasions?

Archer is not, as the saying goes, bovvered. "I've discussed this many times," he says, "and of the 400 people I had contact with, I think we've lost eight people." You mean, they don't get in touch or they were actively hostile? "Both. But if you look at the list of people who came to see me in prison - well, what was that marvellous line of Dame Edna's? 'It's outrageous. I can get a table at The Ivy, I can get one at the Caprice, but I can't get to see Jeffrey Archer because the queue is so long.' "

It's a bit, I ventured, like the cream of London society queueing up to visit the Elephant Man in his hospital room. "I was very touched," says Archer. "The best visitor was Billy Connolly, who nearly caused a riot. The prisoners almost fell on the floor and worshipped him."

Former prisoner FF8282 also enjoyed seeing the wife of a former Tory cabinet minister watching events in the visitors' room. "In an open prison, you get girlfriends visiting, and there was this guy putting his hand up his girlfriend's skirt. Lady R was very unimpressed at seeing these two almost having intercourse in front of her." He laughs. At 65, he is extraordinarily boyish, gossipy and confiding. You try to deflect the charm offensive that comes flying towards you over the coffee and biscuits, but it's damned hard.

This chap may be a disgraced perjurer and a convicted justice-perverter, but he is still a life peer, and could take his old seat in the Lords and vote in debates. "I've signed in. I'd vote if I felt strongly on an issue. About prison, for instance, if I felt I knew what I was talking about, or a major issue like the glorification of terrorism act." He loves talking about the stonewalling tactics used by the Lords to get their own way - the kind of politicking that sees Archer in his favourite incarnation - the gleeful, hand-rubbing, in-the-know team player, outwitting the Commons.

But was he afraid of finding himself cold-shouldered by his peers? "Lots of people have written to say, 'You have more to offer now than you ever had. There's a whole subject on which you're an expert.' The three or four times I've been back, I've been welcomed with open arms. For example, there was a major wedding anniversary for a dear old peer, and I was very touched to get an invite. Mary and I went along and we couldn't have been made more welcome. People are much more forgiving than the press give them credit for." But if you were barred from the Lords, would you care? "I'm not answering that question."

OK then, do you believe that, when David Cameron said the other day: "Jeffrey Archer has no future in the Conservative Party," he truly believes you have nothing to contribute, or was it a purely strategic move? "He's got to lead the party. He's got a very hard job to do, and he's made a very good start."

Is it true that he had lots of post-prison invitations to appear on radio and TV? "We had - HOW MANY WAS IT, ALISON? - over a hundred offers, radio, TV, I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here. But I turned them all down." But Jeffrey, aren't you, incontrovertibly, a celebrity now? "No," says Jeffrey Archer, knitting his brows in a final, intense display of sincerity. "I want to be a writer."