One book I wanted to read for a long time was Jeffrey Archer’s newest release – A Prisoner of Birth. It has been ages since an Archer book has really impressed me and I thought this would be a welcome change from the drivel I had been reading for some time. From the description on the back cover itself, I could guess that the book had been heavily inspired by “The Count of Monte Cristo“, an Alexandre Dumas classic and one of my favourite books.
The story is simple. Danny Cartwright is falsely accused and convicted of the murder of his best friend and brother in law to be Bernie Wilson. The testimonies of four men – an aristocrat, a lawyer, a well known actor and the youngest partner in a well known firm, are instrumental in ensuring his incarceration in the high security Belmarsh Prison, from where no one has ever escaped. These four men are the ones responsible for the murder but only Danny knows that. The typically prejudiced jury ends up believing the four rich men instead of the commoner Cartwright.
A much grieved Danny begins his sentence in a cell shared by Sir Nicholas Moncrieff and his crony Tom. Nick who is a Scottish aristocrat begins to educate Danny who is an apotheosis of the bourgeoisie. A fast learner, Danny excels and in no time he becomes soft spoken and cultured like his mentor. His thirst for revenge rages as strong as ever as his girlfriend Beth, who is pregnant with their child, carries on an arduous struggle in the courts for his freedom.
Under extraordinary circumstances, Danny slips out of prison in search of revenge and also the fabled Moncrieff fortune, which Nick bequeaths to Danny before his untimely demise. The usual tomfoolery follows with Danny eventually proving his innocence after a protracted legal battle.
What amazes me more than the story is the manner in which Archer has contemporarized an age old classic. One can almost see Archer turning the pages of his copy of Dumas’ great work as he seeks to find a plausible parallel between the characters of the classic and his own effort.
Danny Cartwright is what Edmond Dantes would be in the 21st century, a garage mechanic and a coarse lowbrow. Nicholas is a very suave Abbe Faria. The four bad guys are caricatures of the four villains Danglars, Cadderouse, Villefort and Fernand. Belmarsh however, does not sound as formidable as its equivalent the Chateau d’If. But the funniest analogy is that between the treasure of Monte Cristo and the Moncrieff Fortune. Before I discovered that Moncrieff is indeed a surname, I believed it to be an unholy amalgamation of Monte, Cristo and Jeffrey. Dark humour indeed.
Does the book live up to its hype? Certainly not. It is definitely not a masterpiece as it has been almost entirely sourced from a magnificent work of literature. Full marks to Archer for finding ways to get the hero out of sticky situations though. If more people would read the original work, they would discover there is nothing new in this book. But for those who have not, it is entertaining enough. After all Archer will make a fortune out of this one.
A 6 on 10 for this one and I hope to God Jeffrey does not start reading the three musketeers after this.