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Friday, May 16, 2008

Book Review: A Prisoner of Birth

A Prisoner of Birth is a novel about revenge and redemption by Jeffrey Archer. Its protagonist, Danny Cartwright, is wrongly convicted of his best friend’s murder and sentenced to life in prison, torn away from his fiancée and child. Because Cartwright is uneducated and from the “wrong” end (East End) of London, the jury chooses to believe the testimony of four “respectable” blokes from the West End who refer to themselves as the “Musketeers.” The four gentlemen include a barrister (the real murderer… those damn lawyers), and his friends who witness him commit the murder but lie to protect him: a soap actor, an aristocrat, and the youngest partner in a respected investment firm. The book focuses on the trial, Cartwright’s imprisonment, his escape and his revenge.

If you haven’t recognized the plot yet, the book pays homage to Dumas; it’s essentially a modern remake of The Count of Monte Cristo. I am not opposed to modern interpretations of classic works; however, there are a few plot holes that just don’t work, and actually can’t work, in this modern setting. It is beyond far-fetched that Cartwright would be placed in a cell with his very own doppelgänger, who educates him and instructs him how to be a nobleman, then conveniently dies so Cartwright can assume his identity. Even Dantès’s escape in Faria’s body bag seems more plausible. This plot point becomes more Days of Our Lives than great modern literature and distracts from an otherwise well-crafted story.

But even with the plausibility issue, the story flows well, and is a fast-paced read. The characters, while somewhat one-dimensional, are still interesting. The story itself differs from Dumas, not in plot but in purpose. The Count of Monte Cristo is the story of revenge, mercy and forgiveness. A Prisoner of Birth, while trying to be those things too, is more the story of a man who changes his position in life through the opportunity of education. This really speaks to me. Cartwright begins the story trapped by his upbringing, and is emancipated not through his escape from prison, but in his education and new opportunities. I did miss the Dumas analysis of how revenge can be empty, and certainly that revenge can have unforeseen consequences of hurting innocent people. However, Archer’s story isn’t really about revenge; the revenge portion is limited so a lengthy analysis of its ramifications would seem forced and out of place. Archer’s story is more about Cartwright’s transformation. He is Eliza Doolittle to Moncrieff’s Henry Higgins, and because of that change, he is no longer a “prisoner of his birth.”

About a quarter of the way through the book, I remember thinking how the character of Moncrieff was so completely far-fetched. He is educated and articulate, even has a title of nobility, yet there he is, serving a sentence in maximum-security prison, biding his time as a teacher to all the uncouth prisoners. He takes a poor, uneducated man from the East End, changes his entire outlook on life and helps him overcome his limitations of poor upbringing and lack of education. A nice idea, but really, how often do smart, cultured men end up in maximum-security prison, anyway? Apparently more often than I realized. The author, Jeffrey Archer, has plenty of street cred to spin such a tale. Lord Archer is a former MP who served time for perjury and [the English equivalent of] obstruction of justice. He even spent some time in Belmarsh Prison, the same maximum-security prison to which Cartwright is sentenced. This guy’s life story is much more unbelievable than any plot line in his book. I can’t help but like the book, because I can’t help but like the author. Archer continuously gets caught up in controversy (and illegal activities), but then manages to rise above his mistakes and still come out on top. I like that. And I really do like his book.

A Prisoner of Birth is rather a well-written story and a fun page-turner. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, and eventually I was able to suspend my disbelief in the plausibility of the storyline in order to do so. The revenge plot that Archer weaves is creative, much less complicated and drawn out than Dumas, and works well in a modern setting. The best portion of the book, however, involves Cartwright’s “treasure hunt” to seek Moncrieff’s rightful fortune. I like treasure hunts. (Especially that involve pirates, but sadly, pirate action in this setting would just be silly. Arrr!) This particular yarn is reminiscent of Charade, and serves as a fun distraction from the heavier personal turmoil-and-revenge parts.

From a law nerd standpoint, I found the book especially interesting. For someone who is not a barrister (or even a solicitor), Archer does a great job weaving the trial work into the book. His attention to detail and the overall understanding of English laws of evidence seem to be quite good. Admittedly, I had to do some research to determine that; I knew nothing about English trial law, so I learned a lot (an added bonus). For instance, I had no idea a criminal defendant can be convicted based on a majority jury verdict, nor how much authority a judge has in a criminal proceeding. Fascinating. For law nerds, and especially comparative law nerds, this is a fun way to learn a little about English trial law. (If only American lawyers got to wear robes and big white wigs. I would so love a big white wig.)

Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun read this summer, I would recommend picking up a copy. I’m actually interested in reading Archer’s other works, which definitely says something. I hope you've enjoyed my book review. I had a great time, and if anyone else wants me to review a book, I'd love to do it! (hint, hint)


Cee said...

Today I was just thinking that I need to find a fun summer read! Thanks- I might try it. if not, you have enticed me to watch Count of Monte Cristo again :)

HMD_SRQ VII-B said...

Wonderful review by the author. Brilliantly explains everything about the book. There are some loop holes, nevertheless, it's an excellent read.