BOOK REVIEW: The wimp who outsold the world

STRANGER THAN FICTION Michael Crick Hamish Hamilton pounds 17.50
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The Independent Online
Literary biographies usually dwell on the tension between the life and the work, truffling around in search of the psychological roots of art. Political biographies tend to be busier affairs, but they, too, routinely explore the friction between political beliefs and the harsh realities of high office.

So it is odd to find no hint of any such inquiring spirit in Michael Crick's acute and painstaking account of Jeffrey Archer's extraordinary career. He has researched his subject with avid and open-minded curiosity, but refrains - perhaps for legal reasons - from attempting any psychological profiling of his own. Archer might be "the extrovert's extrovert" in Margaret Thatcher's phrase, but even with the details fleshed out his life remains a far from open book.

Perhaps this is because Archer's real work, his most distinctive creation, is the bizarre shape of his own life. From this account it seems that Archer's ambitions have taken a tinny modern form - a quest for fame and fortune per se, without much fuss about how they are achieved. He has been a sprinter, a teacher, a policeman, a fund-raiser, a politician, a property dealer, a writer and a television "personality"; he once even wangled himself a screen test.

At any rate, it is a dramatic saga, and the title is eager to suggest that it reads just like an Archer novel - Keen and Able, perhaps; not so much a whodunnit as a how-does-he-get-away-with-it. His fiction is predictable, full of inert stereotypes and stale twists. But Archer's own life is the real thing: dynamic, driven, flamboyant and crammed with enticing ambiguities. It would take a better writer than Archer to do justice to the high-profile scrapes, blunders controversies and triumphs that have accompanied his dash for the top. He was the wimp (nickname: Pune) who turned himself into a top-class sprinter, the classroom dunce and non-graduate who somehow managed to secure a place at Oxford; and the non-writer (little grammar, less spelling) who outsold the world. Crick expertly narrates the major episodes; the notorious saga when his friend gave a prostitute pounds 2,000 at Victoria station and Archer went on to win pounds 500,000 libel damages; and the perhaps not-notorious-enough row about the Anglia shares Archer bought for a friend just before a takeover announcement made the price jump.

But the consistent theme in the book is the variance Crick finds between what he discovers and what Archer says. Archer claimed his father had once been British consul in Singapore and a colonel in the Somerset Light Infantry; Crick notes that Singapore, being a colony, does not have a consul, and finds that the regiment has no memory of him. The letter of reference accompanying Archer's application to Oxford listed six O-levels and three As. Crick can find only three Os. The same letter called Archer a fellow of the impressive-sounding International Federation of Physical Culture, not pointing out that this was a mail-order bodybuilding programme.

He is revealing on the hectic editing required of an Archer manuscript, the weeks of intense labour continuing, as one editor put it, "until literacy has been achieved". Critics who have been rude about his books will be pleased to see that Archer himself attributes his success to marketing hustle. He was thrilled to find himself top of the New York Times best- seller list when Graham Greene was only 17th. "You know why?" he said. "Because he won't go out and promote his books like I do. I can't understand it." The idea that you might write a book merely to do the best you can, rather than to enrich yourself or top best-seller lists, would probably strike him - to use one of his favourite words - as pathetic.

On the whole Crick goes along with Archer's own theory, which is that he might not be much of a writer but boy, can he tell a story. Crick enjoys quoting Mary Archer's description of her husband's "talent for inaccurate precis", but would not like to suggest that the truth could be this simple.

At the end he meets Archer's publisher, Eddie Bell, who switches off the tape recorder and asks: "Do you like him?" Crick is nonplussed. It's the question he has been dreading, and you sense him stammering for a plausible answer. He plumps for Alan Clark's pithy confession, quoted on the back: "I know I ought to resist him, but I find him irresistible." In a way he's like some big naughty dog who keeps leaving muddy spots on the carpet. It's hard to stay cross with a creature who merrily wags his tail no matter what; but after Crick's cautious, thorough investigation you think, damn - there's a limit, isn't there?

Robert Winder