Picks and Pans Review: As the Crow Flies

updated 08/05/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Jeffrey Archer

Early in this saga of Charlie Trumper's rise from a working-class striver in London's East End to a commercial prince with a seat in the House of Lords, there comes a moment when Archer (Kane & Abel) really starts to deliver the goods.

The hero is a true-blue soldier in World War I—a grunt who does his duty, charging into murderous fire, suffering wounds bravely—when who turns up as his commanding officer but the odious villain who will shadow his life like a cloud, Guy Trentham.

Trentham, an officer and a coward, is the secret father of an illegitimate son whom Charlie will end up raising. The swine Trentham even gets the Military Cross for heroic deeds done by others.

It is enough to make anyone bitter, and Trumper has just buried his best pal. "Charlie listened to the chaplain intone the words, 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,' before the last post was played yet again.... A hundred thousand men sacrificed their lives on the Marne. Charlie could no longer accept that any victory was worth such a price."

But, and here's the key, Trumper does not give up. He knows how life works—that idle brutes are given credit for others' heroism, that sorrow falls undeservedly to the virtuous—yet he goes on. In other words, he chooses life. Knowing the odds are against him, he fights the good fight, bolstered by the wisdom of his grandfather, who sold produce from a barrow and took pride in being an "honest trader."

As he confronts all the obstacles life throws at him, Charlie remains a good sport and conquers all, eventually acquiring a department-store empire.

So, too, must Archer be a stout fellow. He doesn't possess the prose skills of a Fitzgerald or the thundering moral outrage of Dostoevsky. But he tells a nice story. And he keeps alive here a thread of the high-minded myths and sturdy morality plays that are passed down, one generation to another, as stone truth. This novel, a reassurance that a virtuous life is possible, is like a long, languid, comforting soak in a warm tub. (HarperCollins, $22.95)

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