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A Prisoner of Birth    by Jeffrey Archer Amazon.com order for
Prisoner of Birth
by Jeffrey Archer
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Jeffrey Archer, bestselling author of over twenty-five published titles - fiction (including Kane and Abel and False Impressions) and non-fiction, short stories and plays - now brings us an exciting legal thriller with strong echoes of Alexandre Dumas and The Count of Monte Cristo. There's a club called the Musketeers, an older prison mentor, and a daring escape with a treasure trove to be discovered and revenge to be sought.

The story opens on a happy note - the engagement of childhood sweethearts, Beth Wilson and garage mechanic Danny Cartwright, and their subsequent celebration with Beth's brother (Danny's best friend) Bernie at the Dunlop Arms wine bar. There things quickly turn sour as the working class East End trio is insulted and harassed by an affluent - and very arrogant foursome of ex-Cambridge University friends who were all members of a club known as the Musketeers. They include barrister Spencer Craig, estate agent Gerald Payne, popular actor Lawrence Davenport, and wealthy junkie Toby Mortimer. Though Danny, Bernie and Beth leave the bar to avoid trouble, the others follow, there's a scuffle and Bernie dies.

Of course you can see where this is going - led by the sociopathic Craig, the four rich and privileged men support each other in a complete fabrication of events. They pay off the barman, and call on a sympathetic police officer, DS Fuller. Police assume that Beth is lying to support her fiancÚ. Danny is convicted of murder and sent to the maximum-security Belmarsh prison for twenty-two years. But enough questions are raised in people's minds by the trial that he has sympathizers in unusual places, including the prison. This results in his sharing a cell with two good men - disgraced officer Sir Nicholas Moncrieff - who served with NATO forces in Kosovo - and his cellmate Big Al, who claims to be a bank robber.

Big Al and Sir Nicholas give Danny tips that make his time in prison more tolerable, and the previously illiterate Danny rapaciously soaks up an education from his officer and gentleman mentor, while hoping for a successful appeal. When that fails, Danny exploits his resemblance to Sir Nicholas to impersonate the man who has become a close friend and escape jail by walking out as Moncrieff on his release date. There's a lot more to the story, including an inheritance from Moncrieff's grandfather that his uncle is trying to steal from him. And neither Beth nor Danny's young advocate, Alex Redmayne, stop working to clear his name, while Spencer Craig continues to play the part of heartless villain to the very end.

As Moncrieff's Scottish attorney - one of Danny's growing train of admirers - comments in the court case that concludes the novel, 'we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth.' Though Danny's initial illiteracy was rather hard to swallow, given his intelligence and access to the English school system, Jeffrey Archer makes an excellent point about the huge disadvantage that some face - due to birth - when forced to confront the legal system. And though this is a modern Monte Cristo retelling, Archer has only used the bones of the original, fleshing in his version with characters we love to love and hate, and with a gripping plotline that propels us to his highly satisfying conclusion. Don't miss A Prisoner of Birth!

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