Jeffrey Archer Excerpt: Tell Tale

Nearly a decade after his last volume of short stories was published, Jeffrey Archer returns with his eagerly-awaited, brand-new collection Tell Tale, giving us a fascinating, exciting and sometimes poignant insight into the people he has met, the stories he has come across and the countries he has visited during the past ten years.

Find out what happens to the hapless young detective from Naples who travels to an Italian hillside town to find out “Who Killed the Mayor?” and the pretentious schoolboy in “A Road to Damascus,” whose discovery of the origins of his father’s wealth changes his life in the most profound way.

Revel in the stories of the 1930’s woman who dares to challenge the men at her Ivy League University in “A Gentleman and a Scholar” while another young woman who thumbs a lift gets more than she bargained for in “A Wasted Hour.”

These wonderfully engaging and always refreshingly original tales prove not only why Archer has been compared by the critics to Dahl and Maugham, but why he was described by The Times as probably the greatest storyteller of our age.


CORTOGLIA IS A delightfully picturesque town in the heart of Campania. It rests high on a hill, with commanding views toward Monte Taburno to the east, and Vesuvius to the south. It is described in Fodor’s Italy quite simply as “heaven on earth.”

The population of the town is 1,472, and hasn’t varied greatly for over a century. The town’s income is derived from three main sources: wine, olives, and truffles. The Cortoglia White, aromatic with a vibrant acidity, is one of the most sought-after wines on earth and, because its production is limited, is sold out long before it’s bottled. And as for the olive oil, the only reason you never see a bottle on the shelves of your local supermarket is because many of the leading Michelin-starred restaurants won’t consider allowing any other brand on their premises.

The bonus, which allows the locals to enjoy a standard of living envied by their neighbors, is their truffles. Restaurateurs travel from all corners of the globe in search of the Cortoglia truffle, which is then only offered to their most discerning customers.

It is true that some people have been known to leave Cortoglia and seek their fortunes further afield, but the more sensible among them return fairly quickly. But then, life expectancy in the medieval hill town is eighty-six years for men and ninety-one for women, eight years above the national average.

In the center of the main square is a statue of Garibaldi, now more famous for biscuits than battles, and the town boasts only a dozen shops, two restaurants, and a wine bar. The council wouldn’t sanction any more for fear it might attract tourists. There is no train service, and a bus appears in the town once a week for those foolish enough to wish to travel to Naples. A few of the residents own cars, but have little use for them.

The town is run by the consiglio comunale, made up of six elders. The most junior member, whose lineage only goes back three generations, is not considered by all to be a local. The owner of the winery, Lorenzo Pellegrino, chairman (ex officio), Paolo Caraffini, the manager of the olive oil company, and Pietro De Rosa, the truffle master, are all automatically members of the council, while the three remaining places come up for election every five years. As no one has stood against the schoolmaster, the pharmacist, or the grocer for the past fifteen years, the voters have almost forgotten how to conduct an election.

The Polizia Locale had consisted of a single officer, Luca Gentile, whose authority derives from the city of Naples, and Luca tries not to disturb them unnecessarily. This story concerns the one occasion when it was necessary.

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No one could be certain where Dino Lombardi had come from, but like a black cloud, he appeared overnight, and was clearly more interested in thunderstorms than showers. Lombardi must have been around six foot four, with the build of a heavyweight boxer who didn’t expect his bouts to last for more than a couple of rounds.

He began his reign of terror with the weaker inhabitants of the town, the shopkeepers, the local tradesmen, and the two restaurateurs, whom he persuaded needed protection, even if they couldn’t be sure from whom, as there hadn’t been a serious crime in Cortoglia in living memory. Even the Germans hadn’t bothered to climb that particular hill.

To be fair, the policeman had retired the year before, at the age of 65, and the council hadn’t got around to replacing him. But the real problem arose when the mayor, Mario Pellegrino, died at the age of 102, and an election had to be held to replace him.

It was assumed that his son Lorenzo would succeed him. Paolo Caraffini would then become chairman of the council, and everyone else would move up a place, with the vacancy being filled by Umberto Cattaneo, the local butcher. That was until Lombardi turned up at the town hall, and entered his name on the list for mayor. Of course, no one doubted Lorenzo Pellegrino would win by a landslide, so it came as something of a surprise when the town clerk, on crutches, his left leg in plaster, announced from the steps of the Palazzo dei Municipio that Lombardi had polled 551 votes, to Pellegrino’s 486. On hearing the result, there was a gasp of disbelief, not least because no one knew anyone who had voted for Lombardi.

Lombardi immediately took over the town hall, occupied the mayor’s residence, and dismissed the council. He’d only been in office for a few days when the citizens learned he would be imposing a sales tax on all three of the town’s main companies, which was later extended to the shopkeepers and restaurateurs. And if that wasn’t enough, he began to demand a kickback from the buyers as well as the sellers.

Within a year, heaven on earth had been turned into hell on earth, with the mayor quite happy to be cast in the role of Satan. So, frankly, it didn’t come as a great shock to anyone when Lombardi was murdered.

Luca Gentile told the chairman of the council that as murder was out of his league, he would have to inform the authorities in Naples, and he admitted in his report that there were 1,472 suspects, and he had absolutely no idea who had committed the crime.

Naples, a city that knows a thing or two about murder, sent one of its brightest young detectives to investigate the crime, arrest the culprit, and bring them back to the city to stand trial.

Antonio Rossetti, who, at the tender age of thirty-four, had recently been promoted to lieutenant, was assigned to the case, although he considered it an inconvenience that would keep him out of the front line—but surely not for long. He assured the chief of police that he would wrap up the case as quickly as possible, and return to Naples so he could deal with some real criminals.

However, it didn’t help that Luca Gentile died of a heart attack before Lieutenant Rossetti had set foot in Cortoglia. Some suggested Gentile was suffering from the strain of the whole affair, as the last murder in the town had been in 1892, when his great-grandfather had been the poliziotto. The only person left who seemed to know anything about the case was the examining doctor, who resided in the next village.

Rossetti called in to see Dr. Barone on his way to Cortoglia. He was not pleased to discover that Lombardi had been cremated, and his ashes scattered on the far side of the mountain within hours of his death, such was the locals’ hatred of the man. The one thing Dr. Barone could confirm was that only he and Luca Gentile had seen the body before it was taken away in a plastic bag.

“So you and I are now the only people who know how the murder was committed,” said Barone as he handed over the results of the autopsy to Rossetti.

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Copyright © 2017 Jeffrey Archer.

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Jeffrey Archer was educated at Oxford University. He has served five years in Britain’s House of Commons and twenty-four years in the House of Lords. All of his novels and short story collections―including Best Kept Secret, The Sins of the Father, Only Time Will Tell, and Kane and Abel―have been international bestselling books. Archer is married with two sons and lives in London and Cambridge.

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