The Fall of Mr. Toad

Jeffrey Archer: Stranger than Fiction

by Michael Crick
London: Fourth Estate, 527 pp., £8.99 (paper)

To delve into the world of Jeffrey Archer’s imagination is a melancholy business. The cardboard heroes of his many novels, mostly men, but a few women too, are distinguished by lit-tle else than flaming ambition. Many of them are frauds, con men, secret philanderers, or undercover assassins. But even the more straightforward ones do not aspire to be prime minister or president of the United States for any particular purpose. They don’t want to change the world or govern it better; to get to the top is the thing, the only thing.

At the end of First Among Equals (1984), Simon Kerslake, one of four rivals to be prime minister of Britain, finally gets the call he has always been striving for. A man from a modest background, he has overcome every obstacle put in his way by grander people, who went to better schools and sneered at him for “trying too hard.” After a very close election, he is on his way to Buckingham Palace, in the back of his chauffeur-driven Rover, motorcycle riders on either side. “The chauffeur then swung into the Mall and Buckingham Palace loomed in front of Simon’s eyes. At every junction a policeman held up the traffic and then saluted. Suddenly it was all worthwhile….”

Ah, if only… Jeffrey Archer, too, harbored such ambitions. Like Kerslake, he went to a school no one had heard of, and was condescended to by better-born Tories. Like Kerslake he was an energetic striver who came back from near bankruptcy. Like Kerslake, he thought he was well on his way: a rich and famous novelist, art collector, and grand party host, deputy chair-man of the Conservative Party, peer of the realm, mayoral candidate for London… And now he is in prison, serving a four-year sentence for perjury and perversion of justice. The story of Archer’s fall is as sordid as anything he could have made up in his fiction.

It all began with an encounter in London in the early hours of September 9, 1986. Archer was Tory deputy chairman at the time. A Pakistani businessman named Aziz Kurtha thought he spotted Archer picking up a rather blowzy prostitute whose services Kurtha had just been enjoying himself. He decided to make some extra cash by selling the story to the scandal press. The girl, Monica Coghlan, cooperated in a sting operation with The News of the World. Prompted by her tabloid minders, she induced Archer on the phone to offer her money to leave the country. He later denied ever having met her, but said he had only wanted to help a young woman in distress. One of Archer’s fixers, an unsavory character named Michael Stacpoole, was photographed at Victoria Station handing her an envelope with cash. The News of the World had its “exclusive.” Archer admitted he had been “very foolish,” and knew that his political career had crashed. And that is where things would have ended, if another tabloid, The Daily …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.