Archer's Goon is a 1984 fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones both for the young adult and adult markets. It was nominated for the 1985 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and is listed as a ALA Notable Children's Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book.

Plot summary

Thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes lives in an English town with his parents, Quentin, an author and professor, and Catriona, a music teacher; his sister Anthea, always called "Awful" because of her constant screaming; and Fifi, the family's au pair. Their life is interrupted one afternoon when an unnamed huge person, "somebody's Goon" as Fifi describes him, comes into their home and announces that he has come to collect the two thousand words that Quentin owes somebody called Archer.

It transpires that thirteen years ago Quentin undertook to write two thousand words of nonsense quarterly and give them to Mountjoy, a town official. In return he was promised an exemption from city taxes. The Goon says that the latest two thousand didn't get to Archer. Quentin irritably writes a replacement set and gives them to the Goon, who goes away—but the next afternoon, he is back, as they were a repeat of what had been done previously, and the agreement specified that they must not be a copy or paraphrase of anything he had done before.

The Goon takes Howard to see Mountjoy, who reveals that the town is secretly run by seven wizard siblings: Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus. Each one "farms" (i.e., takes money from) some aspects of the town's life and industry (for list, see below). Mountjoy has instructions from an unknown superior to post the words, but does not know who the actual recipient is.

Mountjoy's revelation starts the Sykes family on a quest for the sibling who is the actual user of Quentin’s words. The Goon takes the family to meet Archer, who believes that Quentin's words are restricting him and his siblings from leaving town. His aim is to acquire a sample of the writing so that he can figure out how to lift the restriction, in order to take over the world. On learning of Archers abitions, Quentin becomes convinced that the restrictions are a thoroughly good thing, and stubbornly refuses to write them any more.

Other siblings, like Archer, also want to acquire samples of Quentin’s words for the same purpose and they all start putting pressure on the Sykes family. Gas and electricity is cut off, the shops are closed to them, their bank accounts are frozen, and all of Catriona's musical instruments play themselves, full blast, as does the radio and TV. Torquil, who farms music and therefore is Catriona's effective boss, threatens that she would lose her job if she does not get Quentin to write him two thousand words; Fifi, who is in love with Archer, attempts to get the words for him; and Shine briefly kidnaps Awful and Howard to use them as leverage. When Hathaway (roads and transport, archives and records) is rebuked by Quentin, the street outside the Sykes house is dug up and re-paved over and over again.

When Quentin receives a letter from the town demanding payment of a huge amount in back taxes, Howard and Awful decide that they have to seek help from Hathaway, who lives 400 years in the past. The children visit him in his Elizabethan household by going through a white door at the back of the museum. Hathaway proves to be very reasonable, stops the street digging, and promises to help about the taxes. But he also tells Howard that the boy is adopted, causing the world to shake under his feet.

With Hathaway eliminated, Erskine is the next most likely candidate as the "user of the words". The Goon takes Quentin and the two children through the sewers to the Erskine's sewage installation outside the city limits. It would have been only a short walk above ground, and when asked why he took them through the sewers, the Goon admits that he can only leave the town through the sewer or by rubbish truck. Quentin realizes the Goon is, in fact, Erskine.

Erskine has the three locked up as a way of exerting even more pressure on Quentin, but they manage to escape. Howard now must find the seventh brother, Venturus, who lives in the future. Howard identifies Venturus's hiding place by going to a half constructed building, i.e., to a place that will exist in the future. As he runs from Erskine's men, he frantically wishes to Hathaway to send him a bus, and lo - one appears. He asks Archer for money for the fare, Shine to cause a distraction, and Dillian for a police car to stop Shine's "distraction", which goes a little over the top; all of these things miraculously appear unto Howard, and eventually, he arrives at Venturus's hideout.

As Howard goes inside, he becomes older with each step. On a mirror is scrawled the foreboding message, "THIS IS THE SECOND TIME". Howard eventually realizes that he himself is Venturus, who has been building a fantastic spaceship inside his home in the future. Venturus had twice, to get himself out of design problems with his spaceship, sent the whole town back thirteen years through time, accidentally transforming himself into a small child in the process. That small child was adopted (twice) by Quentin and Catriona, who named him Howard. The six siblings could not leave the town all that time not because of Quentin's words, but because their parents laid it on them to protect Venturus, and as long as Venturus–Howard was too young to realize his magical powers, they had to be close by to protect him.

Torquil, Hathaway, Erskine, and Venturus, who have no ambitions to rule the world, evolve a plan to send the other three (Archer, Shine, and Dillian) off to deep space in Venturus's newly constructed spaceship. The three are enticed aboard and sent off on the spaceship, which Howard–Venturus has programmed for a one-way trip to Alpha Centauri. The remaining siblings have no plans to rule the world – but Howard, now Venturus, still worries about what Erskine and Awful may get up to in the future.

The siblings and their domains

  • Archer: Money, power (electricity and gas).
  • Shine: Crime, industry.
  • Dillian: Law and order, fire brigade (with Erskine)
  • Hathaway: Roads and transport, records and archives
  • Torquil: Music, sport, shops. Religion (never stated, but clear from context).
  • Erskine: Water and drains, fire brigade (with Dillian). Garbage (never stated, but clear from context).
  • Venturus: Housing, education.

All seven farm the taxes.

Television adaptation

In 1992, the book was adapted as a six-part TV series by the BBC. Of the experience, Diana Wynne Jones says:[1]

I was quite closely involved, actually, because the producer (Richard Callanan) was a very nice man and he wanted to get it as close to the book as possible. Both of us had to sit around the table and persuade the scriptwriter (Jenny McDade) to make it close to the book. When she started it couldn’t have been further from the book. It got closer and closer and closer and they got most of it in. They couldn’t get some of the stuff at the end in but they did a fairly good job - I think the scriptwriter actually didn’t enjoy herself at all. They asked me whether I’d like to write scripts but, so far, I haven’t found it appeals. It’s a very different way of thinking, of telling a story. I was talking to somebody who is, primarily, a scriptwriter but who’d also published his scripts as novels and he says he has to write the script first and then the novel from the script. I would have to do it the other way around, I think.


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