BOOK REVIEW / Not a cliche more, not a cliche less: Twelve Red Herrings - Jeffrey Archer: HarperCollins, pounds 14.99

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BESTSELLING writers quite like to carp at the so-called literary establishment for ignoring their work. In recent weeks Maeve Haran and Ken Follett have both quarrelled with this wicked habit in print, and it was an odd sight, two writers taking up lots of space to complain about how little space they got. Follett even implied that if it weren't for the snooty disdain of the elite, he, instead of Michael Ondaatje, might have won the Booker Prize.

It was odd to see so successful a writer in such a stew about not being up for the Booker. And who was he arguing with? Only an idiot would suggest that popular books must be bad, and it is obvious that thriller-writers and romancers have invaded some of the more highly charged areas of life: war, espionage, politics, terrorism and so on; not to mention the traditional passions - love, lust and revenge. Apart from anything else, the characters in bestsellers often have boring things like jobs, which more ambitious literature often seems to manage without.

There is, nevertheless, something unpleasant about the argument that popular books must be good. On one level, it is mere greed - these people win the mega-buck contracts, and now they want all the prizes too. But it is also a curious attack on criticism itself, as if the drawing of distinctions were nothing more than snobbery. It seems careless to talk of critical discrimination as if it were like a racial prejudice; what else can criticism be but discriminating? Two billion people watched the World Cup final and it was a clear dud. Nothing is axiomatic, thank goodness: some popular books are great, and some unpopular books are great too.

None of which helps us much where Jeffrey Archer is concerned. There must be a reason why his books remain so popular, but I'm damned if I know what it is. The fairy-tale about how he wrote his way back to wealth and fame continues to be a compelling one - easily his best. And the first of the 'stories' in his new collection ends with a cheeky bit of insider trading, so all credit to the publisher for organising such a convincing publicity campaign on this very theme. But otherwise his persistent success ('Britain's top-selling novelist') remains one of those enduring British mysteries, like the Loch Ness Monster or the crop patterns in Wiltshire. Is it a baffling miracle, or just someone stumbling around in circles with a bit of old rope, and getting money for it?

According to Brewer's, a red herring is a smoked fish dragged across the path of a fox to ruin the scent and disorientate the hounds. Usually one is enough, but Archer - perhaps not sure that they work - has thoughtfully provided a pack of twelve. Or maybe he hopes that red herrings give off, en masse, a strong enough whiff to confuse an entire reading public. A businessman returns home to find his wife in bed with a raffish consultant called Jeremy Alexander (oh, those glamorous initials]) and plots his revenge; a tedious would-be entrepreneur is fooled by a Greek rip-off merchant; etc, etc. The stories are mostly part set in a dated, upper-crust Britain where the vexed question of who is supposed to polish Mountbatten's shoes is thought to be tense and funny.

The plots are so unremarkable that they almost, in an uncanny, double-bluffing sort of way, work: surely, we think, that handsome, oily Italian seducer can't turn out to be a cad - it would be too hysterically trite for words. But, in a characteristic twist, this is exactly what happens. One of the stories is called 'Never Stop on the Motorway', so when a woman does pull over and leave her car, we think, well, obviously no one is going to climb in and hide in the back seat - the single least surprising thing that could possibly happen. But guess what? The woman arrives at her destination and sure enough, there, crouching in the back seat, is a . . .

The dot-dot-dot is Archer's favourite dramatic device. One jury foreman rises to deliver his verdict and says: '. . .' It takes quite a lot of nerve to make such shameless play with so many 24-carat cliches. The longest story in the book - a marital inquiry conducted by one of the finest coppers who ever walked a beat, turns on the amazing fact that when it's 12 o'clock in France, it's 11 o'clock in Britain. Blast your eyes, Holmes, you've done it again] Another story sets out to prove the superior cleverness of women, but this turns out to mean simply that they're good at glamming themselves up in posh frocks and sleeping with millionaire bankers in order to wangle themselves a ruby-diamond necklace from Bond Street. Women, eh? Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

The 'twists', not to put too fine a point on it, are chronic. But the stories do introduce themselves neatly. 'It's hard to know exactly where to begin,' we read. 'But first let me explain why I'm in jail.' Just one line and we do, damn it, want to know what's going on. Or: 'Robert Henry Kefford III, known to his friends as Bob, was in bed with a girl called Helen when he first heard about Dougie Mortimer's right arm.' This is all right: a shame it comes to such a dismaying end. It is like eating out-of-date crisps - you keep taking a new one in the hope it will wash away the stale taste left by the one before.

In a way, the stale taste is the whole point. Archer relies not just wholeheartedly but almost exclusively on cliches. All the characters and all the gestures are glib, witless stereotypes - people always look 'long and hard', read 'voraciously', 'toy' with their food and so on. And the characters' speech is solid right-you-are-guv nonsense. The stories are composed in this key so relentlessly that we have to assume this is their selling point.

People enjoy cliches the way they prefer easy crosswords to confusing, brainy ones. They are amiable and unsurprising; and confirm what we already suspect. There are satisfactions here which Archer refuses to do without: on the contrary, he is careful to reject anything fresh or unusual, anything that might interfere with this fragile balance of recognisable formulae. The stories are thus surprisingly economical and even speedy: Archer only has to mention that the barman was a fat, ruddy type with merry whiskers, or that the judge was the fiercest beak in the kingdom, and we get the picture. Whether this is deliberate or not, who knows? But if the stories were better written they might very well collapse entirely.

That might not be a bad thing. The jacket shows a juggler's white-gloved hands throwing up a red ball, which turns first into a goldfish and then a rose. It is tempting to wonder whether the book is a bunch of roses or a load of, um, dot-dot-dot. At any rate, as Raymond Chandler once snapped about Sherlock Holmes: 'Lincoln was wrong - you can fool all of the people all of the time.'