Michael Mewshaw

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

After the enormous commercial success of his recent novels, "Kane and Abel" and "The Prodigal Daughter," one can easily understand why Jeffrey Archer and his publisher would bring out a collection of his short stories. But it is difficult to comprehend what conceivable enjoyment readers will derive from the sophomoric fictions in "A Quiver Full of Arrows," which suggest the author is unaware that the genre has made strides since the days of O. Henry.

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In a prefatory note, Mr. Archer writes, "Of these eleven short stories, ten are based on known incidents…. Only one is totally the result of my own imagination. 'The Luncheon' was inspired by W. Somerset Maugham." While it is worth wondering who, if anyone, knows these "known incidents" and whether these stories have ever appeared elsewhere, there's little point in trying to puzzle out which work is totally the product of Mr. Archer's imagination since they all display the same slack language and slick, manipulative style.

Although the settings range from New York to Nigeria and from London to Mexico, Mr. Archer makes no effort to distinguish one place from another. Similarly, he shows little interest in giving his characters distinctive qualities. Instead he recycles the same tired material. In "The Chinese Statue" a punctilious 19th-century diplomat, Sir Alexander Heathcote, "rose at seven o'clock every morning, joined his wife at breakfast to eat one boiled egg cooked for precisely four minutes and two pieces of toast with one spoonful of Cooper's marmalade and drink one cup of China tea." A hundred years, and four stories later, in "Broken Routine," Septimus Horatio Cornwallis follows a similar regimen…. (pp. 12, 27)

These two humdrum gentlemen are triumphs of complexity, however, compared to others who remember names "in the nick of time," cast "baleful glare(s)" and grow "chilled … to the very marrow." A mandarin actually remains "inscrutable," and there's a cipher named Victor Perez, a grubby Mexican middleman in "A Matter of Principle," who not only dresses in jeans and a T-shirt just like Manuel Rodriguez in "The Coup" but grins "from ear to ear" twice in two pages. "The Nativity," retold from the point of view of Pontius Pilate as a child, is apparently Mr. Archer's idea of irony.

To grant credit where it's due, "Old Love" is an amusing account of a couple of Oxford graduates whose intellectual competitiveness becomes the basis for marriage, and "The Hungarian Professor" is a poignant depiction of a Shakespearean scholar isolated in Budapest. The rest of this collection, however, collapses as Jeffrey Archer tries to wrestle each story toward a trick ending or punch line. (p. 27)

Michael Mewshaw, "A Novel and Some Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1982, pp. 12, 27.∗

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