JEFFREY Archer had, at the last count, sold 270-million books, which puts him up there with some of the world's bestselling novelists.

I'd not read one until I devoured two over a weekend, namely Only Time Will Tell and The Sins of the Father.

The latter is his latest and 17th novel and the second in his ambitious, five-part Clifton Chronicles series.

It opens with Harry Clifton, the main protagonist, as a desperate young man at the beginning of the Second World War. Not much better, actually, than he was at the beginning of the series.

Back then he was an orphaned, Bristol, England dockland boy, whose father died after being welded into a ship. Now Harry is walking down a ship's gangplank in New York, straight into the arms of the police.

He's assumed another man's identity while at sea to protect the woman he loves. He's horrified when, masquerading as Tom Bradshaw, he is arrested for murdering his "brother".

Nobody back home in Bristol knows he's alive, let alone in jail. They believe he drowned when his ship sank during the early salvoes of the war.

Determined to survive, Harry learns fast how prisons work and manages to get into the library. So did his creator, Archer, when he was imprisoned for perjury in 2001. This followed a libel case involving a prostitute whom, it was alleged, Archer bribed to leave England.

Harry had made good in Only Time Will Tell, due to his angelic voice, an asset that got him into a top school. But as he languishes, impoverished and desperate in a US jail, he is unaware that the woman he was separated from at the altar has borne him a son. She refuses to believe he's dead, relying solely on an unopened letter she briefly spies on the mantelpiece of Harry's mother. She too sets sail for New York.

Both books are written through the eyes of each of the main characters. One of them is his feisty, gorgeous mother. She will, and does, go to any lengths to help her son.

The Clifton Chronicles saga, which will eventually span a century, from 1920 to 2020, has all the ingredients of compelling novels - rogue aristocrats, low-life scoundrels, wars and excellently drawn characters. The first two chronicles feature cliff hanger endings and when, on meeting Archer, I suggest there is a whiff of the soapie about them, he's indignant, pointing out they have won awards and high praise.

It's true that both Clifton Chronicle books have gone to number one within weeks of their release. The Sins of the Father shot to the top of the hit parade on four continents a week after going on sale. It is outselling its predecessor by 170%. This is probably because Archer's readers know the characters well and are comfortable with them as they plunge into the second book. If this is the case, his publishers must be drooling at the thought of the next three books.

Archer, who turned 72 during his recent South African visit, is writing one book a year of his saga. The next one is due out in March next year.

The wildly wealthy author says he is constantly besieged by readers wanting to know who is going to survive his five-part saga. One desperate fan e-mailed him a picture of his dying mother, who wanted to know if Harry would make it.

Archer remarks testily that he doesn't know what will happen.

This is the hallmark of a true yarn spinner: "I am not a brilliant writer, I just love to tell stories," says Archer. "I have a simple gift and I work extremely hard at it".

He's as famous in the UK for his flamboyant life - he's written three books about it - as he is for his novels, plays and screenplays. He lost a fortune then made one with his first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1976). But it was Kane and Abel that outstripped everything, with 37-million copies sold.

It seems as if his Clifton Chronicles might follow suit in the fullness of time as it, siren-like, lures its readers deeper into the lives of its characters. Just like a soap opera.

TITLE: The Sins of the Father

AUTHOR: Jeffrey Archer

PUBLISHER: Pan Macmillan