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Onyx reviews: Tell Tale by Jeffrey Archer

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/05/2017

In addition to writing long, multi-volume sagas, one of Jeffrey Archer's specialties is the short story that ends with a twist, in the O. Henry vein. After several collections of these stories, coming up with a twist that can't be anticipated is proving more of a challenge, but he still manages to surprise in at least a couple of the fourteen stories in this collection.

Most of the stories presented here are inspired by real-life incidents he has collected in his travels over the years, and they are primarily set well in the past. The ones that are completely fictional pale by comparison—it's as if Archer's imagination fails him somewhat in the short form. One story is interrupted by an authorial note in which he admits that he came up with three different endings and couldn't decide on which one he liked most, so he presented them all, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Many of the stories deal with ne'er-do-wells who get away with major crimes in fascinating ways, which presents something of a moral dilemma when reading the book. Are readers supposed to cheer for the murderer, the insurance frauds, the man scheming with another man's wife to rob him blind, or the desperate people who cheat a casino, or the scammers or made a fortune through deceit, or the man who cheats his employer while perpetrating a monumental fraud spanning two continents? As clever as these stories are, they are somewhat disturbing when taken as a whole, considering they were written by a man who spent time in prison for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Two of the fourteen stories are mere trifles, experiments in penning stories that are exactly 100 words long. The latter is a distillation of one of his best early stories. One can imagine Archer dredging up some of the other stories at dinners or in posh parlors, dropping the twist endings on friends and acquaintances like the punch lines of well-told jokes.

This is a quick read, as most of the stories are only a few pages long. The longest by far is probably the least successful, "The Senior Vice President," a convoluted tale about a man made redundant mere months before eligibility for full retirement who decides to take matters into his own hands. One of the best twists comes at the end of "A Wasted Hour," in which the meaning of the title is dropped like a bomb on reader and protagonist alike.

The slight volume is padded out with the first four chapters of Archer's next novel, Heads You Win.

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