Jeffrey Archer has achieved a certain renown as the author of well-crafted popular novels, most notable among them "The Prodigal Daughter," "Shall We Tell the President?" and "Kane and Abel," the latter also the inspiration for a widely followed television mini-series. "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less," his followers should be warned, is not a new product from the Archer factory but the first American hardcover edition of his first novel, originally published in England in 1976.
It's an entertaining little book about four men who get stung in a clever scam, and apparently it was written from bitter experience. Twenty years ago, as Archer's publisher tells the tale, he was a 26-year-old member of Parliament with bright political prospects, but six years later he made the mistake of investing $1 million in a Canadian venture. In 1974 Scotland Yard informed him that his investment had gone bust. Broke and unable to seek reelection, Archer turned to the typewriter; the result was "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less," which set him off on a career in which he presumably has recouped his old losses.
The scam in the novel is described by a Scotland Yard inspector to one of its victims as follows: "The game isn't a new one, and this time it's been played by an old pro, a very cunning old pro. It works something like this: A company is set up or taken over by a bunch of villains who acquire the majority of the shares. They invent a plausible story about a new discovery or super product that will send the shares up, whisper it in a few willing ears, release their own shares on to the market and let them be snapped up by the likes of you, sir, at a higher price. Then they clear off with the profit they have made, after which the shares collapse because the company has no real substance."
The "very cunning old pro" in question is Harvey Metcalfe, a first-generation American who cast aside his Polish name at an early age and made an enormously lucrative career for himself operating at the shady periphery of legitimate business. In this case he has set up a phantom company called Prospecta Oil, which is ostensibly drilling for oil in Britain's North Sea, and has lured four investors into his snares: an American academic in residence at Oxford, a British physician, a French art dealer and an English lord. Together they toss in $1 million, and together they take a bath.
They quickly decide, though, not to take it lying down. Led by Stephen Bradley, the American, they decide instead to retaliate. Bradley prepares an elaborate dossier on Metcalfe, then lures the other three to his lodgings. He proposes that they steal the money back -- "not a penny more, not a penny less" -- and issues the challenge:
"Each of you must take the (dossier) away and study the information, and then return with a plan of how we are, between us, to extract $1 million from him without his ever being aware of it . . . Each member of the team will put $10,000 into the kitty as a float and I, as the mathematician, will keep a running account. All expenses incurred in retrieving our money will be added to Mr. Metcalfe's bill, starting with your journey down here this evening and the cost of the dinner tonight."
It is at first a reluctant team, but as its members begin to devise their schemes, their enthusiasm increases. With the exception of Lord James Brigsley, a handsome fellow but a bit short of imagination, they come up with plans that are clever, risky and, for the reader, most amusing. They play on Metcalfe's greedy appetite for fine art, his habit of spending long hours at the tables in Monte Carlo, and his longing for approval by the establishment. But when these three undertakings are completed, the team is still $250,000 short; it is here that the plot takes its most surprising and entertaining turns, right down to a trick ending in the final page.
"Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less" is a first novel, and it shows; there's a good deal of rather didactic scene-setting, and a character who is crucial to the novel's early stages is permitted to vanish -- a piece of clumsy plotting that the mature Archer surely would not countenance. But the novel pretends to nothing except entertainment, and at that it is quite successful: witty, imaginative, well written. Save it for the beach.