Book Review: Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less – Jeffrey Archer

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“The conned: an Oxford don, a revered society physician, a chic French art dealer, and a charming English lord. They have one thing in common. Overnight, each novice investor lost his life’s fortune to one man. The con: Harvey Metcalfe. A brilliant, self-made guru of deceit. A very dangerous individual. And now, a hunted man.

 With nothing left to lose four strangers are about to come together – each expert in their own field. Their plan: find Harvey, shadow him, trap him, and penny-for-penny, destroy him. From the luxurious casinos of Monte Carlo to the high-stakes windows at Ascot to the bustling streets of Wall Street to fashionable London galleries, their own ingenious game has begun. It’s called revenge – and they were taught by a master.”

 

I had high hopes for this novel.

Unfortunately (I bet you saw this coming from at least a mile away), those hopes were dashed.

The premise and synopsis were promising, if somewhat familiar, suggesting at an intelligent, finely crafted narrative with lashings of witty humour and oodles of barbed dialogue. The usual fare, for this sort of novel, but familiarity does not always breed contempt, and, on this occasion, it didn’t seem to be a major, gut-churning problem.

In Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, a group of men conned out of a great deal of money decide to band together, in the name of revenge and brotherhood, to win back A) their money, and B) their respect, and ultimately live happily ever after.

Or something.

Naturally, they decide that the best approach is to become pioneering, if not fearless, vigilantes, and so they turn their not inconsiderable combined brainpower onto the target in question, a ruthless businessman with a heck of a reputation, a huge fortune, and a daughter that is absolutely devoted to, while simultaneously dismissing any notion of turning to the trained authorities without even a token discussion.

Their unity of purpose is breathtaking.

The novel begins with the con that deprives our would-be heroes of their money, and it is immediately made clear that this is a fundamentally dire situation. Among other things, the group face serious financial difficulties, and problems that will only escalate further. But their solution is Harvey Metcalfe, while he’s talented, experienced, and utterly ruthless; they’re just a disparate bunch of men with little in common.

They succeed, naturally.

But there’s little satisfaction, if any, to be found in the result. They deprive their prey, the aforementioned Harvey Metcalfe, of exactly what he took from them – down to the exact penny – but there’s no indication that the man even notices. There’s no fatal blow, no crushing destruction that will end his fame and fortune forever, and no indication that while our heroes swagger off towards the sunset, the villain is left bankrupt, bereft, and miserably belligerent.

Arguably, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less needed that climax. That fatal blow. Without it, coming to the end of the novel was about as enjoyable as reaching the end of the shampoo bottle halfway through soaping up, and it was neither what I expected nor what I could have any hope of enjoying. It might have bucked the trend, but it simply didn’t work. Rather than reaching a dramatic conclusion, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less fades to a finish, lacking conviction and decisiveness.

Unfortunately, the characters were similarly halfhearted. The majority were stereotypes, and the rest just plain dull, with a frankly rather ridiculous amount of detail on what school they attended aged ten and a half, and not nearly enough on why abandoning their responsibilities at a moment’s notice isn’t even a small problem. They lack shape, depth, and personality, and any motivations they might have for their actions simply glossed over.

Finally, the reason I have given this novel a rating of two stars rather than one is that although I was spectacularly unmoved by the writing, plot, and characters, there were, nonetheless, many clever aspects. Archer demonstrated a deep and consistent knowledge of his chosen focus, the various plans dreamed up by the aspiring heroes are, if not foolproof, at least entertaining, and the grand reveal of the identity of James’s newest girlfriend was arguably a much better story than the main plot. This wasn’t enough to redeem it, but it certainly bears mentioning.

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