Paths Of Glory, by Jeffrey Archer (Macmillan)

Did British climber George Mallory climb Everest thirty years before Hillary? You bet your sweet stiff upper lip he did – or so this novel, in its stitching together of fact and surmise, would have it. Mallory’s body was found just below the summit in 1999, seventy-five years after he perished on the mountain. The discovery revived speculation that he reached the top before falling to his death on the descent. Whether that counts as a successful attempt – well, as Sir Ed tentatively remarked, “I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down.”

Jeffrey Archer is the writer of many novels, but he could sure use a creative writing class. Don’t load the front-end of your story with background. Develop character through action and dialogue. Vary the tempo. Show, don’t tell. Empty mantras, until you are subjected to prose that ignores them utterly. Mallory achieved so much on foot; maybe Archer felt compelled to outdo him in pedestrianism.

Mallory was a determined, likeable young man, pally at Cambridge with Rupert Brooke, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey… the question of his sexual orientation arises, but not, evidently, for Archer. Strachey once panted to Leonard Woolf that Mallory’s “body – vast, pale, unbelievable – is a thing to melt into and die,” but Archer eschews such detail in favour of brisk camaraderie and a bit of nude towel-flicking. Mallory marries his sweetheart, but Everest, the other woman in his life, claims him in the end. (Mountains are unsettlingly referred to throughout this novel as alluring, all-but-unattainable women. All the characters do it, all the time, and not just about mountains. Sample dialogue: “That capricious mistress, the weather…”)

Mallory is rumoured to have promised to leave a photo of his wife, Ruth, at the summit of Everest. When his frozen body was found at last, his pocket was empty. Proof that he made it to the top? No, Jeffrey, not really.


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Tim Tweets