The Eleventh Commandment by Jeffrey Archer is an espionage thriller about a retiring CIA operative who finds himself at war with cartels, the Russians, and even his agency (available in new U.S. reprint July 2, 2013).
Two types of books exist: good and bad. But many titles occupy the grey lonely place in-between, only changing their position on a either a trickle or a tidal wave of enthusiastic debate by readers, publishers, bloggers or a combination of all three. Blood often remains on the floor or the computer screen as the various parties give no quarter in their quest for top opinion.
Jeffrey Archer can gaze down upon all this, untouchable, when he picks up pencil, pen, etch-a-sketch or whatever his chosen literary tool. This book is terrific, like a master class in crime writing with the thrills spilling off every page and spinning off into the stratosphere. I felt like I had been grabbed and chucked into a Mixed Martial Arts tournament and then passed from one fighter to another, but never having been slapped into unconsciousness, as then I would be unable to turn the page, or run my finger down the screen to keep on readingk.
Turning the page is exactly what I wanted to do from the first scenes with the CIA's Connor Fitgerald committing robbery in Colombia:
He checked his watch yet again: twenty-four minutes to two. By now he calculated that the police would have left the pawnshop, having concluded that it was a false alarm. They would phone Mr. Escobar at his home in the country to inform him that everything appeared to be in order, and would suggest that when he returned to the city on Monday, he should let them know if anything was missing. But long before then Fitzgerald would have replaced the battered leather case in the window. On Monday morning the only items that Escobar would report stolen would be the several small packets of uncut emeralds that had been removed by the polici?a on their way out. How long would it be before he discovered the only other thing that was missing? A day? A week? A month? Fitzgerald had already decided he would have to leave the odd clue to help speed up the process.
Fitzgerald took off his jacket, hung it over the nearest chair, and picked up the remote control from a table by the side of the bed. He pressed the On button and sat down on the sofa in front of the television. The face of Ricardo Guzman filled the screen.
Fitzgerald knew that Guzman would be fifty next April, but at six feet one, with a full head of black hair and no weight problem, he could have told the adoring crowd that he had not yet turned forty and they would have believed him. After all, few Colombians expected their politicians to tell the truth about anything, especially their age.
Ricardo Guzman, the favorite in the upcoming presidential election, was the boss of the Cali cartel, which controlled 80 percent of the New York cocaine trade and made over a billion dollars a year. Fitzgerald had not come across this information in any of Colombia’s three national newspapers, perhaps because the supply of most of the country’s newsprint was controlled by Guzman.
Then, we race onto a brutal assassination in mean streets of St Petersburg. I woke up and smelt the coffee, no problem.
A top-class, complicated ploy by a hit man means the twists start from the word go. One of his names—though he has many— is Dirk, which I thought was funny. It's all about the words the author puts together to tell the story, to weave the tale and actually get the reader to care about what happens to the characters, even if you don’t actually care for them. The blood on his victim hasn’t dried yet, and we are off to Washington, via South Africa and a few name changes along the way.
The name checks at the beginning of the book are impressive, though my favorite was the “three members of the St. Petersburg mafia who would not allow their names to appear.” I doubt they would have gone far in the mafia without numerical skills, so they will see that the novel is split into four parts. Book One is The Team Player, Book Two is The Loner, Book Three is The Hired Assassin, and finally, Book Four is The Quick and the Dead. Connor Fitzgerald is our main character, though he takes on other names along the way when he is not narrowing his eyes and looking down the sight of a “Leupold 10 power sniperscope.” Archer is very still with his storytelling, so you feel you are looking down the Leupold 10 as well. During the novel, we're whipped from Colombia, to the U.S.A. to Russia and back again, and so on, but Archer’s real skill is in managing the small details and playing them just behind and under the big tapestry of the plot.
Such great touches along the way just add to the resonance. It is not sparkling mineral water, it is aqua minerale. Rock and roll, Mister Archer. Once the assassin’s deed is completed, he jumps on a 727 from Colombia to Capetown. I don’t know whether 727’s are still used on that route but—you know what?— my trust in the writing is such that I bet they do. I know he's right when he says the “VW engine immediately sprang into life, even though it had not been used for three days.” (My forty-year old Beetle spent six weeks in an airport car park in the middle of weather you wouldn’t send your worst enemy out into, then started first time without even a splutter or a murmer. ) A 1982 Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon is consumed along the way. I don’t know how much a bottle costs, but they had two at one sitting. Crooked politicians, a loving and loyal family, action at every turn and even some education, like the fact that a ten peso piece “would cover a local call in Bogota.” So now you know. He also let us know, quite correctly, when only a few lumps come in a glass that, “the British would never understand 'lots of ice'.”
For me, the real readability is in the way he intertwines elements, never losing sight of the fact someone actually has to read his work from beginning to end and make sense of it. The story takes us from the Crucifix Prison in St Petersburg to Arlington in the U.S.A. with more than enough tension and surprises to keep even the most jaded crime reader awake into the night. “What kind of man can inspire such loyalty?” is asked. “In your world, I suspect it’s Abraham Lincoln. In ours, it is Connor Fitzgerald.” And The Eleventh Commandment? It's “Thou shalt not get caught.”
There is a twelfth which Mister Archer has never broken:“Though shalt not write a bad book!”
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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.