Jeffrey Archer pictured exclusively at the Tower
We are standing in the inner ward of the Tower of London amid school parties and anorak-clad tourists while Jeffrey Archer is explaining how to steal the Crown Jewels. Not just any of our most precious treasures mind, but the veritable tour de force – the 1937 Imperial State Crown worn most recently by King Charles III at the Coronation.
It is a bright, blustery day but nothing in nature compares to the mini-whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm engendered by the best-selling novelist and former Tory politician as he powers around the historic castle nestled in the shadow of Tower Bridge.
Passing along crenellated walkways, up and down spiral staircases and over bridges, he explains at 100mph how a master thief with a crack team could snatch the very jewel in the crown of the nation from under the noses of the authorities. His excitement, it must be said, is slightly contagious.
This is the culmination of two year’s hard work since he sat next to a female guest over dinner during a post-Covid cruise around the British Isles and she leaned in with the words every writer dreads: “I’ve got a story which could be your next novel.”
Despite himself, he was mesmerised, even more so when he learnt that his (unnamed) fellow passenger was a member of the Royal Household. By the time their ship docked in Southampton, the Kane And Able and Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less author had, to the slight chagrin of wife Mary, who had to remind him they were on holiday, written a 30-page outline of his next book.
‘Colonel’ Thomas Blood
“It was so simple,” he marvels.
“How could we have all missed this? The only time the Crown Jewels have ever been stolen – even briefly – was by Colonel Thomas Blood in 1671 and he didn’t get very far. But she told me, ‘No one’s ever thought about it like this, Jeffrey’.”
And that brings us here, today, on the eve of global publication of Traitors Gate,
his latest indubitable bestseller and the sixth volume of the ambitious eight-book William Warwick series that began in 2019 when he was a mere 79-years-old.
At the heart of the terrific new thriller, his 29th by my reckoning, is revenge.
If master criminal Miles Faulkner can pull off the most outrageous theft in history, Chief Inspector Warwick, in charge of the operation to ferry the Crown across London for the official opening of Parliament and his nemesis, will be toast.
There is something special about a good heist story, Archer admits, as we walk past the original Traitors’ Gate, where prisoners of the Tudors were delivered for incarceration or execution.
“It’s the one type of thriller where we almost want the baddies to get away with it,” he smiles. “And in this case, they do.”
Having been gifted his idea, Archer spent several weeks painstakingly researching routes between the Tower and Buckingham Palace, where the Crown is taken the day before the State Opening of Parliament – the only time it ever leaves the high-security Jewel House. He took taxis, buses, Tubes, and even a river boat on the Thames.
It was, he explains, physically exhausting but worth it: “You can’t have people ringing up and saying, ‘That’s not possible, Jeffrey, I’ve just done that route and it doesn’t work’. Readers find great pleasure in saying, ‘On page 273 you write… but then, on page 292, you go on to say… and they can’t both be right!’
“John le Carré once told me he’d never written a book someone hadn’t found a mistake in. So, yes, I do my research.”
Without giving away any spoilers, the author calculated he could delay the official police convoy sent to collect the jewels by seven minutes or so, thus allowing his gang to swoop in, fool the guards, collect the jewels and disappear.
I must admit, I had assumed his plot would involve some kind of hijack, a dramatic Heat-style armed robbery, but he snorts: “Boring! I dismissed that idea because it was too obvious.”
King Charles wears the 1937 Crown at his Coronation
Instead, his crooks and their copycat convoy are concealed in the underground car park of the nearby Tower Hotel, ready to drive confidently into the fortified complex after the official call has come from the Palace that they are on the way.
“I have my man with his two cars and someone posing as the Lord Chamberlain in the hotel car park,” he explains.
“They can come out and be here in 30 seconds. The Palace has told them the convoy is on its way and it normally takes about 20 to 25 minutes to get here.
“For research purposes, I got a taxi at Buckingham Palace and the cabbie told me there were six routes one could take. I worked out how you could delay them: zebra crossings, roundabouts… you slow the whole route down. So my man ends up
with seven minutes and 20 seconds to get in and out with the Crown.”
The “magic” came when he discovered a tiny car park at All Hallows by the Tower, the ancient Anglican church between the historic fortress and Tower Hill Tube.
There, his conspirators could dump their car – leaving The Sovereign’s Sceptre in the boot in a deliberate affront to the cops – before disappearing onto the Underground, the priceless crown complete with its Cullinan diamond centrepiece snuggled in an anonymous Tower of London shopping bag.
The author with Raven Master Chris Skaife
“The police aren’t yet looking for them… but any moment they will be. Our criminals are going to pass the real convoy coming in the opposite direction,” says Archer.
“This to me is that piece of magic you pray for. Park here next to this little church and suddenly London is laid out before you, you have a means of escape. So my man takes the Crown – I’m not telling you where – and purposely leaves the sceptre to show he could have taken that too.
“This is revenge, after all. The police have to work out where he’s gone… and that’s when the game begins.”
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. That’s how you steal the crown.
Naturally, it’s rather more complicated in print, involving a fake crown – Archer commissioned master jeweller Alan Gard, 85, to create an exact copy of the Imperial State Crown, which he did in 500 hours over 17 months – and all sorts of other red herrings. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more!
We last met for the publication of Archer’s first William Warwick book, Nothing Ventured, when he told me, with a nod to his eight decades: “I’m not a believer, though I do have a tendency to ask, ‘Can I do another book, please?’”
Despite his self-confessed atheism, he must have charmed someone because here we are, four years later, for the sixth book in the series. He laughs when I suggest he is pumping them out: “I do one a year, I was up at 6am today writing.” Does he still have eight planned?
“Yes, but I’ve got a problem. I’m 83 and I’ve lost 35 people in the last year,” he confides. “I went to a funeral and memorial service only last week. It makes you think about it. At your age you don’t think about it.”
By “it”, I assume he is referring to the cold hand of the Grim Reaper? “Don’t put sentences in my mouth Matt,” he barks. “You’re a wicked man.”
Banter aside, he has become aware of his own mortality. “I feel pretty good but the greatest runner of my day was Adrian Metcalfe, my closest friend and relay team-mate. Now dead. Of my rowing team of six, four of them are now dead.
“Frankly, I’m working harder than I have ever worked because I’m frightened of death.” A weekly massage and personal training session three times a week help keep him in shape physically, and it’s clear Archer’s mental faculties remain as sharp as ever.
Jeffrey on Good Morning Britain
“I can still put two sentences together and I’m three years older than Joe Biden,” he chuckles. “I made a speech last week where I got a standing ovation; he literally can’t put two sentences together. So why don’t I stop – I’ve had 27 number ones, why do I bother?”
He answers his own question: “I think this story is quite a good one and I want to write it. Then the next one.”
Pausing for a quick photo with the Tower’s Raven Master Chris Skaife, Archer takes us to see the Crown Jewels.
“Don’t forget, I’m married to a remarkably clever, energetic woman who became a dame when she ran Cambridge University Hospitals,” he continues.
“So it would be fairly hard to relax even if I wanted to – I’d get told off the whole time.”
Making our way through the serried ranks of tourists, we pause briefly before the Imperial State Crown, a magnificent symbol of British royal history. “We copied it exactly. If you could see it I’d challenge you to spot the difference. Mind you, they may have to change the security here once the book is published,” he quips.
Traitors Gate by Jeffrey Archer
Archer’s new book is such a typically British story it’s surprising no one’s done it before. It was published this week in some 47 countries. And he has an especially huge fanbase in India, he tells me, though not quite such large sales thanks to pirating.
“They think in India alone 100 million people have read me. They fly over, buy a copy at the airport and have it on the streets the next day.” I think it’s fair to say he remains rather flattered, joking: “I’d rather be read than dead. I’m a competitor by nature.”
While many of his thriller-writing peers are dead – Wilbur Smith, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, among others – or retired like former Express columnist Freddie Forsyth, Archer is still going strong.
Hugely charming and not in the least bit modest about his achievements, he shares a self-deprecating story before jumping in a black cab for his next appointment.
“I was walking up the street the other day when a man says: ‘You’re Jeffrey Archer? Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less? What a book, what a book! Have you done anything since?’” He guffaws: “I’m serious.” And then he’s off. Having successfully stolen the Crown Jewels, presumably to plan his next criminal enterprise.
- Traitors Gate by Jeffrey Archer (HarperCollins, £22) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop