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Onyx reviews: To Cut a Long Story Short by Jeffrey Archer

Jeffrey Archer is the O. Henry of the modern era. He write uncomplicated stories about people in familiar situations, then throws in a twist at the end that takes the reader completely by surprise, even when the reader knows to expect a twist.

In To Cut a Long Story Short, Archer's fourth story collection, the author has grown to rely more and more on tales based on true incidents. Only five of the fourteen stories are completely fictional; the others are based on anecdotes told to him as he travels around the world.

In the opening story, "The Expert Witness," a firearms expert is shown in two different settings, one in which he testifies for the defense and one for the prosecution. The defense attorney, who also happens to be the expert's golfing partner, uses the same information to portray the man to the jury in a completely different light, depending on whether the witness is on his side or not.

"The Endgame" describes a plot created by an elderly man about to rewrite his will. He decides to test his prospective beneficiaries to see how their attitudes toward him would change were he to become destitute. "Chalk and Cheese" tells of two brothers (sibling rivalry is a common theme in Archer novels), one artistic, the other predictable but ultimately successful. Their mother favors the artistic child, who in fact has virtually no talent whatsoever, and the elder brother discreetly enables him to live his slothful life by lending him a continual stream of never-to-be-repaid cash.

The true story "A Change of Heart" demonstrates how one of South Africa's strongest supporters of apartheid could become an advocate of social change after a life-altering experience opens his eyes. The very short "Love at First Sight" is a charming vignette that takes place between platforms in the London underground.

"Both Sides Against the Middle," is a droll story of a petty criminal who lives in a house that straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He thwarts the local police by retreating to whichever side of the house is most convenient at the time. A retiring police chief makes it his mission to put the man out of business before his last day of work is over.

The collection closes with a poignant tale, "The Grass is Always Greener...," which uses a continually shifting point of view, like a camera on a dolly, starting with a homeless man who sleeps outside a London bank and moving steadily up the chain of command inside the bank to middle management, upper management and finally to the president and CEO, to show how each one, in his own turn, covets the "easy life" of the next person above or below him in society.

Archer has also published a dozen novels, is a member of the British House of Lords and was a Member of Parliament until some indiscretions brought that career to an end. He can also often be seen as a commentator on morning television presenting matters of British high society to American audiences.

The characters in his tales reflect the elevated circles in which Archer moves. For the most part they are aristocrats, globetrotters free to take a weekend jaunt to Paris, known by name in posh dining establishments. Even so, Archer keeps them from being beyond the realm of the average reader. Because there can be so much at stake for these characters—inheritances, careers, standing in society—Archer's playground for twists is rich and diverse.

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