Heads You Win – Jeffrey Archer

I BECAME a fan of Archer back in the 1980s with his chunky sagas like Kane and Abel and First Among Equals.

One of the world's greatest storytellers, he really knows how to get the reader engrossed in tales of likeable heroes who face adversity with courage, steadfastness and noble actions, falling deeply in love and finally achieving their goals.

In subsequent years Archer focused on thrillers and short stories – both of which he did marvellously – returning to historical blockbusters in recent years with the wonderful seven-part Clifton Chronicles.

Now we get a juicy stand-alone saga with two heroes for the price of one. Well, one hero actually, split into two in the style of the movie Sliding Doors.

We first encounter young Alexander as a boy in Leningrad in the 1960s, fleeing the Soviet Union with mother Elena, when he flicks a coin to decide whether to board a ship for the USA or England.

From then on Archer tells two separate stories, switching between the two versions of the boy as he grows up, excelling alternately in school, business in politics.

If you're looking for a meaningful exploration of destiny, fate and happenchance then you should look elsewhere, for Mr Archer excels in page-turning yarns rather than literature.

The two stories rarely intertwine, and only in ways that will raise a momentary, satisfied smile in the reader.

I really enjoyed reading Heads You Win, and would recommend it to anyone who’s ever enjoyed Jeffrey Archer’s novels, but I felt he could have made more of his intriguing concept.

Perhaps he could have shown his two Alexanders, on either side of the Atlantic, influencing real-life events in two different ways? Or instead having them meet the same people and having different effects on their lives?

Instead, the author tells two separate stories, which could have easily made short novels on their own.

Two separate stories, in fact, that read like the ‘greatest hits’ from Archer’s previous novels: intrigues in school, romance, finance, courtroom, politics and the art world that we’ve seen before, particularly in the Clifton Chronicles novels.

This isn’t actually a criticism, because reading Heads You Win feels like a warm, fuzzy return to the lovely world of those seven books.

Until the ending that is: a climax that brings the two stories together, with a dark twist that – although signposted almost from the start – you probably won’t see coming.

Heads You Win is a good yarn, something to enjoy curled up in the chair during long cold winter weekend afternoons.

David Knights