Archer weaves tale of intrigue full of twists

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Book Reviewer

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Master storyteller Jeffrey Archer spins a highly intriguing tale that starts with a coin toss in 1968 at the docks at Leningrad, Russia.

In “Heads You Win” (St. Martin’s Press; $28.99) Alexander and his friend Vladimir walked home from school wondering what they would do when they left school. His mother, Elena, was certain Alexander was assured a Lenin scholarship because he was a brilliant student. His friend was hoping to join the KGB but thought he’d have to settle for the docks.

Konstantin Karpenko, Alexander’s father, who was attempting to organize the underpaid workers, was murdered in a crane “accident” Elena was afraid Alexander, like his father before him, was in immanent danger because he was willing to take risks for what he believed in. Elena’s brother Kolya learned who plotted for the tragic “accident,” but the informant was afraid to say a word. Then, when Elena is molested by KGB officer Polyakov, that is the last straw.

Kolya, third in command of the docks, somehow kept his job as chief loader. He devises a plan to help her sister and nephew. Kolya slowly took her through the plan. “As you know, several foreign vessels unload their cargo at the docks every week and we have to turn them around as quickly as possibly. So any waiting ships can take their place. That’s my responsibility.”

“But how does that help us?” Elena asked.

“Once a ship has been unloaded, the loading process begins. Because not everyone wants bags of salt or cases of vodka, some vessels leave the port empty.”. Elena remained silent while her brother continued.

“There are two ships due in on Friday, which after they’ve discharged their cargo will leave on the Saturday afternoon tide with empty holds. You and Alexander could be hidden on one of them. But if we’re caught we could end up on a cattle train to Siberia.

“That’s why it’s important to take our chance this Saturday, because for once the odds will be stacked in our favor.”

“Why?” asked Elena.

Zemit Football Club are playing Torpedo Moscow in the final of the Soviet Cup. Almost all the officers will be sitting in a box, while the workers will be cheering from the terraces. So there will be a three hour window to take advantage of, and when the final whistle blows Elena and Alexander could be well on their way to New York or London.

Alexander sat in silence as his uncle told him what he and his mother had been planning, and the risks they were taking.

“It means you may have to leave Russia forever. And we may never get a better chance to escape from those bastards who killed my father.” Once Kolya left for the docks, Alexander had more questions for his mother, some she couldn’t answer, including which country they were going to.

“Two ships will be sailing on the afternoon tide around three o’clock,” said Elena “but we won’t know which one Uncle Kolya has chosen until the last moment.”

“All you have to do now,” said Koyla, “is to decide whether you want to go to America or England.”

“Why don’t we let fate decide?” said Alexander. He took a five-kopek coin from his pocket, and balanced it on the end of a thumb. “Heads America, tails England” he said and flipped it high in the air. The coin bounced on the dockside before coming to rest at his feet. Alexander bent down and looked at the image, then picked up his mother’s suitcase and his lunch box and put them in the bottom of the chosen crate.

A double twist of the tale of Alexander’s journey from Leningrad to the halls of power on two continents and spanning 30 years, ends with a startling final twist.

Jeffrey Archer was educated at Oxford University. He served five years as a Member of Parliament and has served twenty-six years as a Member of the House of Lords. All his novels and short story collections have been international bestsellers. He is married with two sons and three grandchildren, and lives in London, Cambridge and Majorca.


An Excerpt:

“Last Thursday evening,” said Sasha, “I attended a debate at the Union, and after I’d accompanied Mr. Anthony Barber to the University Arms, where he was staying overnight, I returned to my college just before eleven. I went down to breakfast around eight the following morning.”

“So none of the fingerprints we’ve found on the fire escape of Newnham College will match yours?” said Warwick , raising an eyebrow.

Sasha suddenly wished he’d obeyed Derek Matthews’s golden rule, and remained silent. He pursed his lips and said, “I have nothing more to say until I’ve spoken to a lawyer.”

Warwick closed his file. “In that case, Mr. Karpenko, I will require a set of your fingerprints before you leave. You will report back to this station with or without your lawyer at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”

Sasha was surprised when, after turning off the tape recorder, Warwick added, “That should give you more than enough time to sort this out.”

The next surprise came when Sasha left the interview room to find Dr. Streator sitting on the narrow wooden bench in the corridor waiting for him.

“Don’t say anything,” he said, “until we are in my car.” He led his student out of the police station and across the road, where an ancient Volvo was parked. “Now,” he said once Sasha had closed the passenger door, “tell me what this is about, and don’t spare me the gory details.”

Sasha had almost come to the end of his story by the time they reached the fellows’ car park at Trinity.

“Clearly the detective sergeant doesn’t believe a word of Miss Hunter’s story. Otherwise he wouldn’t have released you. I suspect Miss Hunter spotted you climbing into Miss Dangerfield bedroom and saw an opportunity to derail your chances of becoming president of the Union,” Streator said, as they climbed the steps to his study.

“Could Fiona really be that ruthless?” said Sasha.

“Don’t think of her as Fiona, but as Sir Max Hunter’s daughter and then you’ll know the answer to that question. But all is not lost. No doubt Miss Dangerfield will collaborate your story, which will make Miss Hunter look extremely foolish.” Streator was clearly enjoying the prospect.

“But I’ve already lied to Warwick in order to protect Charlie,” said Sasha.”Why would he believe me if I suddenly changed my story?”