Jeffrey Archer’s “Tell Tale”, a volume of short stories, is my first book by the author, who is known for his best-selling novels, and whose short stories have likewise been commercially successful. And unfortunately, his stories follow a formulaic template which ends with a twist – the unexpected identity of a murderer, the impact of visiting a concentration camp, the manipulation of insurance claims, and the fiddling of bank accounts – and after a few stories the element of surprise is diminished. Even with his mastery of the twists, the formula proved to be repetitive and monotonous across the 14 short stories, since the reader is inevitably primed to expect a conclusion which is out of the ordinary. And in a not-so-strange way, his 100-word story challenge epitomises this approach of fitting a story into a predetermined template, of a quick beginning, a tension, and a concluding twist.
An advantage of the template – besides its initial novelty – is that the stories cut to the chase. The scene is set. The characters are fleshed out right from the get-go. And the reader knows what to expect through the plot progression. Another advantage is the snappiness of the plot development and the lack of loose ends. Because of the compactness of the cast of characters, the setting, and the plot, almost everything is accounted for at the end of each story. In addition, Archer’s consistent and uncontroversial themes include character growth and development, revenge or comeuppance on the wicked (or deservedness on those who do good), and even the straightforward virtue of being a decent human being. There is not a lot more and not too much depth to read into.
My four favourite stories, in this vein, have a little something extra: Different versions of the ending, greater length to drag out the tension and to keep the reader guessing, as well as schemes which are more elaborate and which require more thought. “Who Killed the Mayor?” is a great whodunit, with enough characters to keep the reader guessing about motives and possibilities, and which sets the tone for the rest of “Tell Tale”. “The Road to Damascus” has a simple twist, yet the message and the motivations are moving. “The Holiday of a Lifetime” stands out with the three different endings presented to the reader, yet the elegance of the couple’s insurance scheme is creative. And “The Senior Vice President” offers a sympathetic character with a convincing modus operandi and a meaningful pay-off.