“We all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth.” (p. 474)
Jeffrey Archer’s novel A Prisoner of Birth tells the intriguing tale of two men who appear to have little in common. Danny Cartwright is a mechanic who is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Beth. Nicholas Moncrieff is the privileged heir of a wealthy Scottish family. Yet the two men become friends while sharing a cell in Belmarsh, a prison from which no one has ever escaped – until now.
Danny finds himself accused of the murder of his best friend, Bernie. Beth, Danny and Bernie are celebrating Danny and Beth’s recent engagement when a raucous group of young men starts harassing Beth. In an effort to escape the bullies, the trio leaves by the back door of the pub – only to find Spencer Craig waiting for them. After wounding Danny and fatally stabbing Bernie, Spencer manages to cover up his crime with the help of his three friends. Danny is convicted of the murder on the basis of their testimony. He finds himself in Belmarsh with Nick Moncrieff and Big Al, and they soon become fast friends. By strange coincidence, Danny and Nick look like brothers and are often mistaken for one another. Danny takes classes from Nick and learns how to handle himself in polite society. Through a series of strange coincidences, Danny leaves the prison as Nick after Nick has been murdered. Will he be able to clear his name? Will he be revealed as an imposter?
A Prisoner of Birth catapults the reader into the complex world of crime and punishment. Danny Cartwright, falsely accused of murder, must prove his innocence against overwhelming odds. His case seems hopeless since the real murderer is a respected attorney who has covered up his tracks very well. Spencer Craig’s story is supported by his friends, whom he calls “the Musketeers:” Lawrence Davenport, a soap opera star; Gerald Payne, a property agent; and Toby Mortimer, a drug addict.
When Danny is released from prison as the wealthy Nick Moncrieff, he creates an intricate plan to seek justice:
“He’d become realistic about the chances of clearing his name, but that wouldn’t stop him seeking justice of a different kind – what the Bible called retribution, and what Edmund Dantes described less subtly as revenge.” (p. 211)
His plan takes readers on a rollercoaster ride through the wealthy and influential social circles of London, Scotland and Geneva. Danny/Nick must rescue Nick’s fortune from his duplicitous uncle Hugo Montcrieff, who tries to steal Nick’s entire fortune by claiming that Nick was disinherited by both his father and his grandfather.
The novel’s hero, Danny, is a model for the notion of rehabilitation. Not only does he get an education in prison, but he also learns to “become” Nick Moncrieff. His brief two-year stay in prison changes him forever. His friendship with Nick and Big Al give him the courage and strength to seek the justice which has so far evaded him, although his return to normal life is by no means easy. Since his family and friends believe that he committed suicide in prison, he cannot contact them. As Nick, he learns to function in the world of high finance and high society. Not only does he succeed, but he grows the family fortune at an amazing rate. His financial skill at money management is unsurpassed. He also has a keen legal mind, which helps him in his quest for justice.
Jeffrey Archer is at his best when he writes about individuals in seemingly impossible situations. He portrays a realistic world of courtrooms, prisons, high society and Swiss financial institutions; his experiences as a member of the British Parliament and the House of Lords, as well as his own two years in prison, layer his novels with realistic details. Archer is well known for his international bestselling novels and short story collections, including Kane and Abel, Sons of Fortune, and False Impression. He writes with skill and imagination, unafraid to raise controversial issues such as prison life, fraud, revenge, and the corruption of the legal profession. Above all, Archer knows how to keep reader on the edge of our seats, right up to a heart-stopping surprise in the very last word of A Prisoner of Birth.