YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Pair of Lives Perfect for a Jeffrey Archer Novel : FICTION : THE FOURTH ESTATE, By Jeffrey Archer (HarperCollins: $26; 550 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Paul Dean | Paul Dean is a staff writer for The Times' Life & Style section, and has worked for the London Daily Mirror--once owned by Robert Maxwell

It's one thing for writers to be inspired by times and their citizens. Shakespeare certainly didn't invent his dippy royals, and Dickens borrowed beautifully from the grubby Victorians he saw.

But it's quite another issue when authors overload a wisp of an idea with real people and actual events and pedal a factually top-heavy mix as a novel of what might have been.

Such pilfering is wholesale in "The Fourth Estate," the latest Populist blockbuster and potential HBO miniseries by prolific and inoperably irascible Jeffrey Archer.

In book tour interviews, Archer unabashedly describes his book as a "novelography." He quantifies the mingling as 80% fact and 20% fiction. Archer does not deny European critics who have recognized great gobs of reportage leeched from existing biographies of the protagonists.

But if this literary form--which falls somewhere between photocopying and soft plagiarism--does not violate your tenets, there is no question that Archer has done it again.

This ninth work of a contemporary fabulist spins a huge tale that, like sitcoms and MTV, will entertain millions without threatening "enquiring" minds. It is a fluid, effortless read for sleepless nights and four-hour flights.

Still, with his easy skill for original writing so cleanly displayed in "Kane and Abel," and "Honour Among Thieves," one is left to wonder why Archer reverted to piracy. Or why he even bothered to change the names of his principals. It certainly couldn't have been to protect the arguable innocence of billionaires Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, those immigrant ink-stained wretches whose takeover and tabloid duels ended when Maxwell, after questionable withdrawals from a publishing pension fund, stepped out of his bathrobe and off his yacht into the Mediterranean.

In the book, Richard Armstrong is a Ruthenian Jew born to a peasant family in Czechoslovakia. He escapes the Holocaust although his parents don't, flees to England, joins the British army and becomes a World War II hero. After the war, there is infamy as a flamboyant, treacherous, adulterous newspaper baron who eats caviar with his fingers and sweats too much.

And this was your life, Robert Maxwell.

His archrival in "The Fourth Escape" is Keith Townsend, the Oxford-educated son of an Australian knight, a half-charming manipulator with a passion for shredding old school ties and breathing new life into dying newspapers by introducing teaser headlines and pictures of the nubile and bare-breasted.

And this is your life, Rupert Murdoch.

Unfortunately, even if you recall only bare outlines of the Murdoch-Maxwell wars and a newspaper rivalry that raged from Australia across Europe to New York, Archer's adherence to its real-life chronology means you already know this novel from genesis to punch line.

You know who wins, who gets caught and who doesn't manage to pull off what deal. And that's before you've opened the book. After reading it, you may be forgiven for feeling you have plucked an 18-pound turkey and found only a Cornish game hen beneath all those feathers.

Equally frustrating is leaving readers to rummage for the actual truth. Did Maxwell seduce a secretary and install her as his personal assistant? At one point in his riches-to-richer rise, was a single decision by a small-town Ohio banker the only thing that kept Murdoch from total ruin?

Did Maxwell have an office closet stocked with identical shirts so nobody would notice that his sweating ruined three button-downs a day? More disgustingly, did he slop HP steak sauce on his Dover sole?

The Maxwell-Murdoch saga was overripe for Archer's picking. It contains his standard grist of big money, bullying power, dirty politics and serpentine intrigue. Indeed, the real surprise is not that Archer created a novel out of the lives of Maxwell and Murdoch, but that the lives of M&M so closely resembled a Jeffrey Archer novel.

Archer, to the disappointment of smarmier interviewers, has consistently acknowledged that he doesn't write literature in search of a Pulitzer. His prose is simplistic and larded with cliches. Further flawing "The Fourth Estate" is a failure to bring color and distinction to his secondary characters, and never explaining what made Armstrong/Maxwell and Townsend/Murdoch such gutter-tactic rivals in the first place.

But, man, can Archer spin a tale that will keep you from crossword puzzles or taped semi-finals of Wimbledon. On the other hand, he is such a lazy read, you probably could do all three at once.

Sentences and descriptions are terse, urgent, always daring the reader to catch up. His own voice is in each book and when people talk of cricket, life at Oxford and the art of Caravaggio versus Luini, these are scraps of the public and private Jeffrey Archers.

And when "The Fourth Estate" is rollicking to a close, you may well forgive Archer his trespasses through the public record. His own life, after all, has been an outrageous skein of political, sexual and financial peccadilloes. We would feel cheated if his books were any less audacious.

The London Sunday Times, well aware of today's ambivalent views of Archer's work--and even a resentment at his enormous success from a somewhat soft-boiled oeuvre--said it well and craftily: "Of course readers love Archer's work: Why should they not? Of course critics despise it: Why should they not?"

The Sunday Times, incidentally, is owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Los Angeles Times Articles