As a follower of conspiracy thrillers I have been waiting excitedly for Tom Cain’s The Accident Man and when I got a review copy. All I can say is WOW!
The novel starts mid-action, introducing the mysterious figure of Samuel Carver, who we learn is an ex-military man or British Special Forces if you will; employed on a contractor basis to set-up accidents for enemies of the State, people that can’t be dealt with by diplomacy and normal police methods. The novel places Carver in the centre of the action as he sabotages a helicopter owned by an East European human trafficker and gangster. Carver has rules: he only arranges accidents for the guilty, so he has pangs of guilt for the helicopter pilot, but his masters manage to rationalise his turmoil by explaining that what he’s doing is for the greater good.
After the spectacular helicopter “crash”, Carver heads off to his Fortress of Solitude in New Zealand, comforted in the knowledge that a huge sum of money has been wired to his secret bank account. We learn that this retreat completely cuts him off from civilisation, and is used for him to escape the horrors of what he does for a living.
No sooner is Carver trying to switch off, then he is asked, no he’s told, to return to civilisation for another job to do. This time he has to eliminate a Middle-Eastern powerbroker who’s visiting Paris with his girlfriend. Carver does not want to eliminate an innocent woman in the process, but is told that the man in question is providing funding for an Islamic Terrorist Group. That an atrocity in England is mere days away unless Carver can provide an “accident” in Paris. The girlfriend will be acceptable collateral damage. Before you can hum the John Barry theme, Carver heads off to France.
Due to the gravity of the situation, Carver rigs up the couple’s apartment with explosives set to go off if his accident misfires. His plan is to follow the couple in their limousine, and cause a car-crash in an underground tunnel. Sound familiar? The mission does goes to plan and the car does crash, but unbeknownst to him a Russian hit-squad has also been sent on a high-powered motorbike but their mission is to kill Carver. Leading the mission is a brute of a man, Grigori Kursk counterbalance by the glamorous Alix Petrova. They hadn’t reckoned on Carver’s resilience and in a battle in the sewers under Paris, Carver dispatches Kursk in a slurry of explosive, or so he thinks, and escapes with Petrova. In his escape, Carver kills several British agents as he realizes that he’s been set-up. The target was not a Middle-Eastern powerbroker and his girlfriend, as he discovers in reading the media coverage of the deaths of Princess Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed in the same Paris tunnel.
Carver is crushed. Everything he holds to be true has been turned on its head, and he can trust no one. A hunted animal as we all know is the most dangerous.
Then begins a global hunt for Carver and Petrova by Kursk’s overlords as well as the British secret service, but leading the trail is a Frenchman called Papin, an associate and freelancer who discovers their trail across Europe. Carver starts to fall for Petrova, but can he trust this eastern beauty, who in a former life worked for the Russian secret services as a ‘honey-trap’ agent? Papin asks for a cool half million from the British secret service to reveal their location. Surely Papin has not read ‘Hannibal’ because like Thomas Harris’s Italian detective, Renaldo Pazzi, selling the whereabouts of wanted men can come with a high price.
Then the race is on with Carver enraged that he was tasked with killing the people’s princess but more importantly - why? He reveals his life to Alix Petrova, while she reveals hers, but the stories don’t hang true. The Russians and the British have their agendas which may or may not be connected, and all the while Carver brings into play his tradecraft as well his contacts and money to the battle, which gets very, very dirty.
As entertainment this is slicker than an oil-spill, but it also provokes a great deal of thought. Apart from Cain’s skill as a writer, comes a knowingness that behind the closed doors that power this world there are dark secrets, hidden agendas with people fueled with darker desires, of power, sex and control of destinies. This is one of the fastest paced thrillers I’ve read in an age. The rapidity of the action, the sensual women, the dark villains, the cutting back and fro from action sequence to action sequence had me spinning in my chair, but most of all there buried a few inches from the surface of the narrative, is a feeling for humanity, people trapped by bonds created by economics and human nature. It also harkens back to the conventions of the golden age of thrillers, and I just loved the battle across Europe, Ian Fleming style, women, the high life, but with death a mere trigger-pull away. Want to know if Carver survives? You’ll have to wait for July in the UK and 2008 in the US when it is scheduled for release Stateside [unless you purchase a British copy].
The Accident Man, for me is one of the must reads of 2007, and for once all the publishers hype is bang on target. If you miss this book, you will miss one of the most discussed thrillers released this year. If you like James Bond, you’ll love Samuel Carver.
This book made me remember why I read: to be thrilled, to travel to dangerous places from the comfort of my chair but also to understand a little how this world works, which sometimes only fiction can provide these difficult answers – bravo Mr Cain you get my standing ovation.
So after an excited telephone with his UK publisher Transworld, I was told that Tom Cain would call me. I rigged up my tape recorder and Cain called me on my cell phone, and we spoke about his novel, The Accident Man. And Shots are pleased to present an interview with this exciting new and mysterious British thriller writer.
Ali Tom, are you the guy called “David Thomas” who interviewed Lee Child in the Telegraph earlier this month? And if so how did this come about?
Tom You might say that … I couldn’t possibly comment!
Ali So are you a follower of Lee Child thrillers?
Tom Big time! So much so, in fact, that it took me about a year, working on the earliest drafts of the first 40,000-odd words of The Accident Man before I could stop writing sub-Child prose and relax into my own style and tone-of-voice. I read your various Rap Sheet pieces about Lee with great interest. Like you, I have found him to be a remarkably generous and helpful man. We met last summer (July 2006) when he was over in the UK and had a long conversation about thriller-writing that was a great help to me. At that point, I’d just sold The Accident Man (to my total amazement, since it had had a very difficult birth indeed) and Lee’s advice and encouragement really helped me finish the damn thing!
Ali In your novel I notice that your protagonist Samuel Carver has some battered thriller novels in his safe house in Switzerland, so like Carver are you also a thriller reader and if so which have left a dent in your mind?
Tom Absolutely, always have been a big thriller fan, so going right back to my boyhood, I’d have to say the Bond books were a huge love and continuing influence (much more than the films, by the way: I completely lost interest as the films parted company from what Fleming had written, though I think that [the new] Casino Royale was a brilliantly-realised attempt to reconcile the original book with 21st century film-making and storytelling). I was also a massive Alistair MacLean fan from the age of 10 or 11: particularly HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone and also Fear Is the Key, which had an incredibly sexy cover, back in the day, which put all sorts of ideas into my pre-teen mind! Since then, my tastes have pretty much run the gamut of crime/thriller-writing, tho I have particular soft-spots for Elmore Leonard (the greatest prose stylist of our age, if you ask me), Carl Hiaasen, Denis Lehane and James Lee Burke as well as Child, of course. I’ve also got to put in a word for Wilbur Smith: not the most fashionable name among the thrillerati, I know, but the guy really knows how to create excitement, create an epic backdrop and convey historical / geographical / natural / political information. Plus, he’s been incredibly generous in his enthusiasm for the Accident Man, so he must be a good man! Oh, and I’m an obsessive Flashman fan – again, he’s hardly a modern thriller hero, but George Macdonald Fraser is a fantastic writer, whom any aspiring author can learn from.
Ali Tell us a little of your early life and what made you want to write fiction, especially thrillers?
Tom Well, there’s one completely autobiographical element in The Accident Man, when I describe Sam Carver’s first day at an English boarding-school school, aged 8. Basically, that was my first day, right down to doing military drill before breakfast, and it screwed me up pretty much the way it screwed him up – though I took the view that the pen is more deadly than the sword, when it came to assassinations! My early story is that my father worked all over the world and I was educated back in England, at the government’s expense, so I’m basically a middle-class boy with an upper-class education. I was always better at writing than anyone else, somuch as I would have loved to have been a rock-star or footballer, being a top author was always my best – and only – hope for any kind of stardom. Throughout a 25-year career in journalism, it was always my hope to come up with a book that stood a chance of being a hit. And it was always going to be a genre-fiction book, rather than a ‘literary’ novel, because I’ve barely read a ‘proper’ book in my life. Whether The Accident Man will prove to be that hit only time will tell.
Ali Were your parents book-ish?
Tom My dad was always a keen, and very wide-ranging reader. It was his Fleming novels I was stealing to read. But he was also into guys like Pynchon, Bellow, etc. Since Dad also turned me on to the Beatles’ White Album and Aretha Franklin, I guess I have a lot to thank him for.
Ali Now The Accident Man seems far too polished to be a debut, so is it a debut work? And what had you written previously?
Tom I’m glad you think it is polished – it sure didn’t feel that way through the two years-plus during which I was trying to get enough half-decent words together to send to a publisher. About four months before the submission was sent out to would-be purchasers, I was summoned to a meeting with one of the partners at my literary agency, who began a three-hour bollocking with the worse, ‘It’s painful enough to read a bad writer. It’s even worse reading a good writer, writing badly …’ Mind you, I never thought it was quite as bad as he did! But he did have a couple of incredibly insightful and valuable ideas, so the book has got a lot better since then. As to your question – at last! – it’s by no means the first book I’ve written, though it is the first thriller and was by far the most technically demanding thing I’ve ever done. I’ve previously written one comic novel (about a young man who goes into hospital to have his wisdom-teeth out and is given someone else’s sex-change by mistake), two or three serious non-fiction books, some lighter books and thousands (literally) of newspaper and magazine articles. I guess I’ve published 200,000-plus words a year for 20-odd years … so it all adds up.
Ali And the day job? As I see you’ve travelled widely. So tell us more?
Tom Just your basic, hard-working freelance journalist, going wherever he can get a gig I’ve been lucky enough to have been paid to fly all around the world to meet fascinating people and attend amazing events … if you’ve ever seen the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, that was pretty much what my early career was like. As I got older I switched from interviewing rockers to politicians, business-people, athletes and lot (and lots) of writers. Not to swank, or anything, but … I’ve hung out at Rolling Stones rehearsals; sung the Floyd’s Wish You Were Here with David Gimour playing guitar, and sung old Beatles songs all night with Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox; swapped baby-photos with Steven Spielberg; had dinner-a-deux with Kylie Minogue, lunch with Liz Hurley and paried with the starlets at the Hot d’Or porn awards in Cannes; accused Don King to his face of being a pussy who let a woman go to jail, taking a fall for him, and asked F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone if it was true that he personally ‘dealt with’ the muggers who robbed him and his wife (he replied, ‘I’ve never killed anyone in my life’; watched Larry ‘Hustler’ Flynt in a casino at 4 am, betting four hands of blackjack simultaneously, with 50-grand on each hand (Leonardo DiCaprio was at the same table) … I’d have made a lot more money being a banker, but in terms of having an interesting, stimulating time I’ve been unbelievably privileged.
Ali The French and Swiss scenes are very evocative, and as being widely traveled, what are your favourite cities and why?
Tom London, because it’s my town; New York and LA because they deliver exactly what you’d want them to; Sydney, because it really is worth the journey; Tokyo and Kyoto because they combine ancient and modern, western and oriental, trashy end exquisite, familiar and completely alien; Rome (out of season) and Munich, because if I could speak a word of German I think it would be a great place to live. I could be persuaded by Geneva, too. I love the way that those Central European cities are right at the heart of things: you can get to Alps, beaches, Berlin, Venice, Milan all in a day’s drive.
Ali How did you get involved with Transworld? And where they concerned that this thriller of yours involves the death of Princess Diana?
Tom This is an odd story. As I said, two years of apparently fruitless effort had left me and my agent, Julian Alexander completely confused about what we had. So Jules came up with a cunning plan. He basically said, ‘There are 10 companies in London who could publish a book like this. So I’ll send it to three of them and if they reject it, we’ll try to work out why, put that right and send it to another three, and so on. With any luck, we’ll have fixed all the problems before we run out of editors.’ Well, the book went out to the first three companies (including Transworld) on a Wednesday. On Friday morning, Transworld rang up and said, ‘Take The Accident Man off the table. We want it, and a sequel.’ And that was that!
As for Princess Diana, she was never an issue for Transworld. Of course they must have been aware that the premise of the book would generate a certain amount of interest or even controversy, but right from the start, they were much more interested in the character of Samuel Carver, thinking of him as someone who could be developed, just as Lee Child has developed Jack Reacher. That was weird for me, because I approached this by thinking of the situation first – a man at the end of the Alma Tunnel, watching a black Mercedes approaching him, preparing to take it out – and only then asked myself: who is this guy? On the general question of Diana, one US publisher and one US film studio got nervous about the concept of writing a thriller inspired by her death. But that was boardroom suits who’d not read a word of the manuscript. I have yet to meet anyone who’s actually read the damn thing who’s remotely offended. And that’s because I went to a huge amount of trouble to make sure that they wouldn’t be – for example, the word ‘Diana’ appears nowhere in the book (it did once, by mistake, in the proof copies – but I’ve dealt with that!).
Ali Was there any intervention from the legal people?
Tom Not so far. There are no allegations made about any real people, so I don’t think there’s any potential for legal action, unless I’ve given one of my homicidal bad-guy characters the name of a completely innocent, real-life individual. My fingers are absolutely crossed, so far as that is concerned.
Ali Were you apprehensive setting the backdrop with the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana?
Tom The biggest apprehension I had, and still have, is that I might – by some appalling fluke – have hit upon the actual reason Diana was killed and the actual people who did it … in which case, they may come after me as well. So, just in case anyone in the know is reading this, I just want to say, for the record, that The Accident Man is pure fiction and I MADE IT ALL UP!
Ali Your book refers to Skull & Bones, Bilderberg Group, Bohemian Grove et. al so are you a grassy-knoll type of guy?
Tom I tend to agree with (ex Pulp singer) Jarvis Cocker’s song, ‘C*nts Are Still Running the World’. The conspiracy of mean, violent, greedy, power-crazed, stupid individuals seems to be the one that has the most power, now as always. That aside I’m pretty skeptical about most theories – I don’t, for example, think that the US government or the Israelis were responsible for 9/11: I’m perfectly happy to believe Osama when he says he did it. Also, I favour Lee Harvey Oswald for the Kennedy hit. BUT … I am really interested in the phenomenon of conspiracies, I think they’re incredibly rich material for fiction and they deal with the same thing that interested me when I was thinking about the Accident Man – the way that there are events which everybody knows about on one, seen-it-on-TV level, but which remain completely mysterious on other, deeper levels.
Ali What are your top three conspiracy theories and why they interest you?
Tom: Here are three I’m pretty close to believing …
- Bogus, quasi-scientific alarmism about man-made global warming (in which I categorically do not believe, for all sorts of actually-scientific reasons too many to list here) is a conspiracy by politicians to create the atmosphere of fear needed to raise more taxes and increase their power; by special-interest groups who are now the establishment, not the rebellion; by scientists desperate for big-money government grants; and by big businesses who can see big bucks in ‘green’ products and services
- Timothy McVeigh did not act alone in Oklahoma
- There’s an official cover-up going on in the Diana case – though whether they’re covering up a murder or their own incompetence and embarrassment, I’m less sure.
Ali Have you seen In Plane Site and Loose Change 2 – which purport to consider the events of 911 to be part of a wider conspiracy?
Tom I haven’t seen them, but I have seen a lot about them. And all I can say is that anyone who thinks that the US government, whether led by George Bush or Mickey Mouse, would seriously consider slaughtering thousands of its own citizens and threatening its economy by flying passenger-jets into New York skyscrapers just as an excuse for war is in need of therapy. There is, of course, a connection between Washington and Osama and it dates back to US support for the Mujahedin in Aghanistan. To that extent Osama is an American creation … and to that extent the US reaped on 9/11 what it had sown 20 years earlier. It’s also indisputable that US foreign policy has alienated billions of people around the world and acted counter to the true interests of America and Americans. So it’s not surprising that people who do not have access to cruise missiles, nuclear submarines and tank armies respond with the only means available to them. But that’s where the connection ends.
Ali Your novel shares a theme with another audacious debut that of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal; are you a follower of his work?
Tom I read The Day of the Jackal twice when I was thinking about my book. I think it’s a fantastic piece of work – not least because it’s unbelievably exciting, even though you know what the ending must be before it even begins; and it breaks all the rules of character-arcs because the Jackal remains just as mysterious and un-explained at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. But structurally, Jackal is like a mirror-image of Accident Man, in that it ends with the key assassination attempt, whereas I begin with it.
Ali You obviously did a lot of research, what with mentions of Echelon, The Dazzler, the modus operandi of the European secret services etc, I assume you have sources?
Tom Well, I grew up in an intelligence/political atmosphere because my father, who was a diplomat (and a proper diplomat, not a spy-in-disguise) was seconded for several years to the British government’s Joint Intelligence Committee and my mother is a politician. Also, I was a child in Moscow, a late-teenager in Washington DC and a young adult in Havana, Cuba. So some of that stuff is just sitting in my brain. A ton of other material came from researching online, books, newspaper-cuttings, etc. I did have a number of private sources to whom I spoke, about whom the least said the better. But in the end, I never forgot that this was a story. I don’t think novelists should ever be ashamed just to make it up. It’s much, much more important to write a gripping, involving, even moving story than to get hung up on facts and technicalities. This isn’t journalism, after all, and I should know …
Ali There is a lot of sex in Accident Man, so did you research that as widely?
Tom I’ve been married for 20 years … so, no!
Ali There is a great deal of action throughout the book, do you enjoy writing these sequences and do you find writing them cathartic? More than the sex scenes perhaps…..?
Tom Yeah, the action was fun. But it was also incredibly demanding – just making sure you’ve got everyone in the right place at the right time for each punch and bullet drives you nuts! That said, the torture scenes at the end of the book flowed incredibly easily and naturally, which is kind of worrying, looking back. There was also an unbelievably sick, violent murder-scene which got cut from the book on the grounds of good taste. I was actually laughing as I wrote that, as one horrendous outrage followed another. So it was cathartic – but possibly not in a good way. As for the sex-vs-action thing, I’d say there was a strong S&M sexuality running through the torture scenes … yet another worrying message from my subconscious.
Ali The brutality is written in a dispassionate manner, almost as the world of these ‘types’ hold little value in ‘life’ and death? How do you feel about writing about what lies the rocks of society?
Tom I didn’t set out to be dispassionate. It was more a case of wanting to write taut, spare, economical prose: just tell the story without too many fancy flourishes. I don’t like prose that tries too hard, any more than I like actors who constantly remind you that they’re acting. Just tell the damn story, that’s my motto. One of my least favourite thriller-stylists was Robert Ludlum (though I liked his plotting a lot). I always found his stuff incredibly turgid and overwrought on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Oddly enough, he was an actor before he was a writer – maybe that was the problem. All that said, I’d like to think that there’s real emotion in the central relationship between Carver and Alix. I hope that’s what keeps readers wanting to find out what happens to them.
Ali Transworld Publishing are very excited about The Accident Man, and as you are writing under a pen-name, are you going to remain in hiding or are you planning to promote the book?
Tom Well, I’m not going to be one of those guys like John Twelve Hawks who lives in hiding and makes a big deal out being mysterious. I decided to give myself a pseudonym because (a) I thought Tom Cain looked a lot cooler on book jackets and (b) it was really liberating, creatively, to be writing a new kind of material under a new identity. It’s also a gas to have an alter-ego. Why should Bruce Wayne and Batman have all the fun?
Ali I heard that global deals are clinched as well as interest in film rights, how involved are you at the business end of writing thrillers?
Tom I’m interested to the extent that it’s exciting to think this might – just might - be a big hit (though it’s also scary to think it might equally well not be, which would be pretty crushing). I’ve got a family to feed and this is my business, so I take a close interest in the deals that are made in my name. But all that said, I’ve spent more than 20 years taking any writing work I can get to make ends meet. That’s involved a fair bit of hack-work over the years, doing stuff purely for the money. I genuinely can’t see any point in going into novel-writing if I simply recreate that situation all over again. I’m doing this because there are stories I want to tell and I won’t compromise those stories just to keep publishers, or even readers happy. As a reader, I love long series of books about the same character. As a writer, I seriously doubt whether I will ever be able to stay too long in the same territory. For example, there’s a book I’ve wanted to write for years that’s set in Japan, three hundred years ago. It’s violent, sexy, passionate; I think it could be a huge hit … but it’s got f*ck-all to do with Samuel Carver!
Ali In some circles thrillers, are often dismissed as lacking characterization in order to propel the plot. However in your book there are some very vivid characters not withstanding the two main protagonists Samuel Carver and Alix. How important is characterization for you?
Tom Well, to tie up a few ideas I’ve mentioned in earlier answers, the irony is that the characters started life purely as vehicles for telling the story that I had in mind: the concept of the book came first. But the more time I spent writing The Accident Man, the more interested I became in these people and the more they became the heart of the book. This takes me back to my mention of Wilbur Smith. He writes action-adventures that are fundamentally love-stories and I’d almost say that Accident Man is the same. (So was War and Peace, for that matter: it’s not a new idea). As you pointed out, there’s a ridiculous amount of action in the book, so you get plenty of bangs for your buck. But there’s also this central romance in which both of the characters are desperate to fall in love, but hardly dare to do so, because they don’t know if they can trust each other or themselves. Those scenes were the points at which I became emotionally engaged as a writer and a human being. Beyond that, I also got a lot of pleasure from creating little cameo-parts. I tried to give even the most minor characters a bit of hinterland – for example, there are a couple of young MI6 agents who put in a brief appearance, shadowing Carver in Geneva. They have their own mini-relationship. It’s just away of creating a bit of empathy between readers and characters.
Ali Do you feel any pressure for book two? Or have you already been working on a follow-up?
Tom Do I feel pressure? Just a bit! And the more that people tell me how much they enjoyed The Accident Man, the scarier the job of matching and if possible topping it in Book Two becomes. (Note: this doesn’t mean you should stop telling me you liked The Accident Man, by the way!) I have been brooding about a couple of possible sequels for the past few months and I’m getting closer to figuring out what I’m going to do. Jeez, it’s a bastard, though …
Ali Will you be involved in writing for the screen or will you leave that to the Americans?
Tom I’d love to write, or co-write the screenplay, if they’ll let me. I write the book in a very cinematic style, so it would be a natural jump from one medium to the other. Plus, I’d like to be able to protect my work, if such a thing is possible. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for letting someone else deal with all the hassle of Hollywood and just getting on with Book Two.
Ali And what do you do to relax? What are your passions?
Tom I’m an obsessive West Ham United fan – a tricky thing to be over the past few months of a completely insane, catastrophic football season. I love singing very badly to very good music. And then, of course, there’s my family – they’re what I care about most.
Ali Thank you for your time
Tom Thank you for yours, and I appreciate your early interest in my work.