The Accident Man
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Itís the summer of 1997 and the United Kingdom is under siege—threatened by a holy war from the Middle East. A radical Islamic fundamentalist, Ramzi Hakim Narwaz, is about to emerge from deep cover to lead a deadly terrorist plot. The son of a wealthy Pakistani family, he has led the life of an idle Westernized playboy while scheming to destroy the West. His termination is essential for the safety of countless military and civilian lives, and a secret British consortium calls in the one man they know can handle the job.
Samuel Carver is a professional assassin. A former British Royal Marine and a man with nothing to lose, he makes a very comfortable living by arranging lethal ďaccidents.Ē The consortium recruited him into the business a few years back and remains his steadiest client. Carverís conscience, however, is catching up with him. Despite the fact that his targets have always been criminals, he feels the ďcorrosion of his soulĒ (p. 13) and decides heíll take a break from the killing after Narwaz is eliminated.
The job detailed to him is twofold. Carver must ensure that Narwazís car crashes at high speed, but he must also wire Narwazís love nest with explosives in case something goes awry and he survives. Equipped by the consortium, Carver sets off into the Paris night. What he does not know is that everything heís been led to believe about his latest mission is a lie and that two of his Russian brethren have been hired to eliminate him once heís completed the job.
Carverís reputation as one of the best is wholly warranted. The crash goes off without a hitch. There is no chance that either Narwaz or his female companion could have survived. But from his employersí perspective, Carver is perhaps too good. He senses the ambush ahead and changes his course just in time to escape. During a harrowing game of cat-and-mouse that takes Carver and his pursuers through the streets and sewers of Paris, he manages to disable one of his pursuers and capture the other. Heís startled to realize that not only is the second Russian a woman but that sheís the same woman whose scent perfumed the love nest he had wired to explode just hours earlier.
Gradually, he convinces the beautiful and wary Alexandra Petrova that she too has been marked for death that night and the bedraggled but still dangerous pair—knowing only that they have been duped—set off to figure out why. As dawn breaks on the City of Lights, the uneasy allies discover that Narwaz was not the intended victim of the assassination—it was his female passenger, whose identity they did not know and whom they had dismissed as collateral damage, Princess Diana. While the world grieves for the Peopleís Princess, Carver and Petrova work to untangle a plot that leads them into the highest echelons of power and threatens them with punishments far less merciful than death.
A first-rate thriller with a daring premise and a compelling and complex new hero, The Accident Man is an action-packed read that also questions the moral relativity of violence in an uncertain world.
Tom Cain is the pseudonym of an award-winning British journalist with a 25-year history of investigative reporting. The Accident Man is his first novel. He lives in London.
A. Well, the scenario that I came up with is entirely invented and I make no claim whatever to having uncovered the real truth about the events of August 31, 1997. It always, however, concerned me that I might, by some appalling fluke, have created a fiction that fingered the actual culprits. In which case, they might not feel too warm toward me. And since they would, by definition, be people who were willing to commit murder.
Until recently, that was my only worry. But then I was informed by someone in the know that MI6 had bought several copies of the book. So now Iím thinking I may be under attack from my own nationís security services. And Iím seriously considering a new career in, maybe, romantic novels, or comedy—something less risky, anyway!
Q. Why did you choose Cain, the name of the first murderer in the Bible?
A. Well, Iíd love to be able to come up with an answer that was rich in symbolism and multiple layers of meaning. And of course Iím aware of the biblical reference. But the fact of the matter is, I chose my name the same way most authors, rock bands, and strippers do—because I thought it sounded cool.
Q. Besides Princess Dianaís death, what inspired you to write this novel?
A. Well, it wasnít the fact that she died so much as all the uncertainty around her death that I found interesting. I donít know any more than anyone else does about what really happened that night—whether it was an assassination or just an accident. But what I do know is that millions of people around the world have wanted, and even needed, to believe in the idea of a conspiracy. One of these, of course, is Mohammed al-Fayed, the father of Dodi, Dianaís companion. And another was Diana herself. She predicted, on tape, that she would die in a car crash organized by Prince Charles. And as I tend to remind people when they claim that itís offensive even to contemplate writing a novel that presupposes that Diana was assassinated, nothing would have upset her more than the idea that she perished in a meaningless, random accident.
On a technical level, the moment that really got me inspired to make the shift from just thinking about the idea of writing a book to sitting down and working on it was when I had the image of the assassin, standing at the end of the Alma Tunnel, waiting for that black Mercedes . . . and he was the hero of my book. It then took me the better part of two years to work out how to set up the story and the character of Samuel Carver so that he could commit this totally heinous act within the first forty pages of the book and you, the reader, would already be sufficiently on his side that you root for him for the next 350 pages.
Q. Without giving away anything that might reveal your identity, did you draw on anything in your own experience to create Carverís identity? For example, did you serve in the Royal Marines?
A. I have to confess that although I was a military history buff as a kid; made model planes, tanks, and figurines; fought war games—all that good, geeky stuff!—my actual military experience or knowledge is precisely zip. So it was a challenge for me to create a character that I could, to some extent, identify with and understand. He had to be someone who was real to me, otherwise how could he ever be real to a reader?
My solution was to think about the elements in an assassinís psychology that I could understand, and for me that came down to the emotional detachment he would need in order to do what he does. There is one autobiographical element in the story, where I describe Carverís first days at boarding school, age eight, when heís far from home and finds himself being woken up to do drill on the front lawn. Well, that was my first day at that age. I was sent away because my father was a diplomat, and by the time I was nine, the rest of my family were living several thousand miles away from me and I only saw them for a couple of months a year. Under those circumstances you develop an incredibly tough emotional armor, which cuts you off from pain, loneliness, and, in the end, the ability to feel pretty much anything at all. Of course, if you have half a brain, you realize that this is totally disastrous in terms of finding any kind of emotional fulfillment. So thatís why the thing I really empathize with in Carver is his desperate longing to find a woman he can love, but also the difficulty he has in allowing himself to love and be loved. To me, thatís what makes Carver something other than an imitation James Bond. When heís not doing his job, heís no more smooth, assured, or competent than any screwed-up thirtysomething guy. The only difference is, he knows a thousand ways to kill you.
Q. You spent the first twenty-five years of your career as an investigative journalist. What are some of the more interesting stories you covered? How did your experiences inform your fiction writing?
A. Well, itís true that I was a journalist who did a number of big investigative stories. For example, I spent years working on a book called Foul Play, about a match-fixing scandal in English Premier League soccer, which took me into all sorts of areas, from Far Eastern gambling syndicates to Southern African game parks (two of the plotters wanted to buy one with their ill-gotten gains), and also taught me a lot about the way crooks think and operate. I did the first big report into the events leading up to the Hungerford Massacre of 1987, when a gunman called Michael Ryan went on the rampage in a small, peaceful market town in southern England—the kind of crime we Brits tend to think only happens in the States. And that taught me about the psychology of a killer, and the desire and ability of the authorities to cover up embarrassing information (because there were many elements of the story that reflected very badly on local police). I also did a fascinating piece of investigation in Hollywood. But for a great deal of my time Iíve written regular magazine profiles and interviews. Iíve been privileged enough to go all over the world and meet an extraordinary number and variety of fascinating people, both famous and obscure. And thatís left me with a personal database of memories, notes, photographs, impressions, and experiences, which are wonderful resources when thinking about fictional places, people, and situations.
The other thing working as a journalist taught me was (I hope) a certain professionalism about the job of writing. Iím used to working under pressure, meeting deadlines, and delivering something that meets, and with any luck exceeds, the demands of the editors who commissioned me. I have what I would describe as an artisanís rather than an artistís approach. That may sound cynical, or heartless. Thatís absolutely not the case. I donít pretend that I am creating some great work of art, because I think thatís a pretentious, self-indulgent, and often self-deluding attitude. Itís not for the creator of a piece of work to make that call. Iím just a trained, experienced craftsman working at my profession as well as I know how. If by chance I come up with something that somehow attains a higher level, thatís wonderful. But at the very least, I try to provide a service for my customers, just as I would expect any other professional to provide a service for me.
Q. Sir Perceval Wake is a fascinating character. Is he based on someone specific?
A. Not really . . .The idea for the Consortium, which he heads, came from a story I was told about a former British Special Forces officer who was approached to work for an unnamed group of influential Britons who undertook work with which the government could not be associated but which, they believed, needed to be done. So then I just developed that idea and asked myself what kind of a man would head such an organization, what his motivations and delusions might be, and where one might find his weak spots.
Q. Do you think Princess Diana would have continued to hold the public in thrall, or would her popularity have faded along with her youth and beauty?
A. Funny you should mention that! Iíve just written an imaginary profile of Diana, for the London Daily Mail assuming that she had survived the crash. That piece hinted at what I suspect would have happened, which is that she would have seriously destabilized the royal family, acted as a perennial lightning rod for any dissatisfaction with or opposition to the queen and the prince of Wales, and supplied a rival center of power and public interest that would have done irreparable harm to the monarchy. In that respect, I agree with everything Percival Wake says on the subject. As will become clear in the sequel, I quite enjoy giving villainous characters opinions that I secretly believe to be correct!
On a personal note, I fear Diana would have found life becoming very difficult. She would have been trapped by her fame; in desperate need of a husband rich enough (and weíre talking billionaire status here) to afford the levels of protection and privacy she would have needed; and tormented all the while by the deep unhappiness and insecurity that had cursed her since her parentsí divorce. By the time of her death, Diana was a profoundly isolated woman. Even her brother, Charles—who so hypocritically claimed at her funeral that ďwe, your blood familyĒ would help raise her sons—had turned down her pleas to be allowed to live in a house on the Spencer familyís Althorp estate. The awful truth, I fear, is that Diana, like Marilyn Monroe, JFK, or John Lennon, was preserved forever by her death at a point when her beauty and magnetism were undimmed. I wouldnít wish an early death on anyone, but hers has served to immortalize her.
Q. You created an extraordinarily amoral world in The Accident Man. Is your opinion of human nature really so bleak?
A. Well, my wife always thinks Iím too gullible and willing to see the best in people, so I guess the answer is no! I truly believe that most people do what they believe to be best, most of the time. Most people love their kids, want the best for the world, and have no desire to harm their fellow men.
But . . . we are imperfect creatures, living in an imperfect world. And we are easily corrupted. Anyone who observes the world around us would surely be forced to acknowledge that people can be extraordinarily ruthless, self-serving, and both amoral and immoral in the preservation of their power, position, and wealth. We know that corporations, governments, and individuals can do terrible things and then do even worse things trying to cover up their original crimes. This of course is good news for thriller writers. Weíd be out of business if the nice part of human nature won out all the time. And bad guys are more fun to write, read about, and then blow away.
So my personal take on The Accident Man is that it describes an appallingly compromised world, in which there are no obvious good guys and even the hero is a murderer. And yet, in the middle of all this bleakness, there are two human beings who are trying, however hopelessly, to love one another. As I was writing the book it felt to me as if it was turning into a love story. I mean I hate to admit that because it might put off guys who are looking for lots of guns, blood, and explosions. Well, theyíre all in there. But so is the story of Carver and Alix. And just to pay tribute to Ian Fleming, that was always the key (in my mind) to the best James Bond books. In stories like Casino Royale and On Her Majestyís Secret Service there are real relationships with genuine emotion—an emotion that the movies only recently tapped into, I think, with Daniel Craig. Without some level of true humanity, why would you care about the rest of it?
Q. Youíve written an extraordinarily accomplished first novel. Who are some of your literary influences?
A. How very kind to say itís accomplished. It sure didnít feel that way during all the months when I was trying and failing to get it right! As for influences, well, Fleming, as Iíve just suggested; Alistair MacLean, though that was more of a subconscious childhood memory than an active influence (looking back, I think it really comes out in the scenes when Carverís crossing the English Channel in a thirty-six-foot sailboat); Lee Child, though it took me a year to stop writing a poor pastiche of Jack Reacher and create something and someone of my own; Wilbur Smith, for the power of his narrative and his ability to write stories that speak to both sexes; Anthony Powell, an entirely different sort of author, but a fantastic analyst of human emotions, relationships, and hunger for power. But, really, the single most powerful influence on me was the TV series 24.
It wasnít the character of Jack Bauer or the operations of CTU or even the scenarios that Jack has to confront that inspired me. It was the challenge that 24 throws down to any writer, which is, basically: Match this. That series never lets up for a second. Itís always moving forward, always double- and triple-crossing the viewer, always making you hungry for more. I thought of all the pleasure and excitement Iíve had sitting down with those boxed DVD sets and watching one episode after another and thought, How can I make the experience of reading my book as gripping and exciting as that?
The single greatest compliment Iíve had is from all the people whoíve described reading The Accident Man in bed, longing to turn out the light, knowing that the numbers on the clock are flipping over, but being unable to stop turning the pages and going through the chapters. If people are going to spend hard-earned money and valuable time on my book, I want them to get value for every cent and every second.
Q. Do you plan to continue to write fiction? Are you working on another Carver novel now?
A.Yes, and yes . . . but, gee, itís difficult! Lots of people have told me that the second book is the hardest (second album, too, apparently). You pour your heart and soul into your first big work. You fill it full of a lifetimeís worth of ideas. And then someone says, Great, now do it again!
So thatís where I am right now, trying to do it again. And this time Iíve got to do it without having the death of the worldís most famous woman handed to me on a plate. Plus, as anyone who finishes The Accident Man will discover, Iíve inadvertently given myself a whole new Carver-based problem to overcome. Right now, Iím a bit like a novelistic equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola, out in the jungle filming scene after scene of Apocalypse Now with no finished script, the whole crew going mad, and no idea whatís going to emerge at the end of it. Coppola ended up with a masterpiece, but that might be asking a bit much. A functioning thriller would do me fine!
- Do you believe that killing another human being as ďa form of pest controlĒ (p. 13) is a morally acceptable undertaking? Was Carverís use of Ergon Ali to bait Skender Visar legitimate?
- How much responsibility does Carver bear for Princess Dianaís death? Have you ever been tricked into doing something that you later regretted? How responsible did you feel?
- Alix was coerced into what was essentially prostitution by her corrupt government. Should she have changed her lifestyle after the fall of the Soviet Union, or was she justified in continuing to live off of her best assets?
- Not many people who suffer the kind of losses that Carver endured transform themselves into cold-blooded killers. What do you think sets him apart?
- Tom Johnson and Jennifer Stock, the two surveillance officers posted outside the cafť in Geneva, were ordered not to get involved, yet they did with fatal consequences. Were they wrong to disobey their orders? What would you have done in that situation?
- What if Cainís fiction were true and Princess Diana was assassinated? Do you think the royal family would be complicit in a cover-up? Why or why not?
- The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to herald the end of the Cold War thriller, yet the ďEvil EmpireĒ has cast a long shadow. How might it be influencing world events today?
- Discuss each of the Birdswell siblings. How do they grow throughout the novel? Do you think their relationships with one another improve? What factors contribute to this? How does life pull them apart and bring them together?
Spoiler Warning: Do not read these next questions if you donít want to know the ending!
- For a normally cautious man, Carver puts a lot of faith in the allegiance felt between men who serve together in the military, yet Trench ultimately betrays him. Do you think his eventual elimination was always in the cards, or was his growing conscience becoming a liability to the consortium?
- Since Princess Dianaís demise, attention to the problem of land mines has significantly decreased. What do you think of The Accident Manís theoretical scenario? What are some other reasons certain powerful people might have wanted her dead?