An Interview with Tom Cain
I’ll give it to you straight. I didn’t trust Tom Cain any further than I could throw him.
Tasked to review a debut thriller called The Accident Man for another publication, I was sure it was just another hack job. It came with one of those generic European thriller images of a glossy Eiffel Tower. The blurb promised typically effusive praise like “breathlessly paced,” and, “one of the most intriguing heroes in recent memory.” I was convinced I was going to waste my weekend on some kind of bad Ludlum-Clancy knock-off with pretentious characters chasing a hard-headed, blue-eyed, chiselled-jaw hero that you can find and dismiss in any one of hundreds of airport doorstops.
The buzz being pumped by the publisher was impressive enough. The guy who represents the modern template for these things, Lee Child, gave it his blessing with a complimentary blurb. Then I started hearing about posters in the UK marketing the book’s lurid connections to a 1997 accident in the Alma Tunnel. Surely this guy wouldn’t blow his shot at a first novel by wrapping it in the death of a beloved Royal figure embraced by millions around the globe?
I had a hard time believing anyone could fictionalize the death of Princess Diana in a tasteful manner. I’m not exactly a royal follower, mind you, but I’ve met Princes William and Harry as well as their distinguished father on a couple of occasions in my travels. William is enormously tall and carries the same graceful bashfulness you can see in photographs of his mother. When a working-class British mother told the young master of her pride in him, he blushed with Diana’s same red-faced charisma and his thanks was entirely genuine. For all of the blustering ridicule pointed at Charles by his countrymen, he’s very articulate and considerate in person and communicates the quiet character of an artist or a caretaker rather than the bravado of a future king. Despite my own hard-earned cynicism, it’s hard to dismiss as a caricature a man who has what it takes to shake hands with genuine warmth and meet you eye to eye.
Hell, even the author of The Accident Man wasn’t real, although it’s virtually impossible to stay hidden in the age of Google. Sarah Weinman and other determined sleuths quickly made a liaison between anonymous death-dealer Cain and a smart and worldly British journalist on the eve of publishing his first novel.
So I put my feet up, cracked the spine of The Accident Man, and waited to be disappointed. And waited. And waited. And I’ll be damned if the nebulous Mr. Cain didn’t pull off one hell of a trick.
The book follows the tense, spontaneous misadventures of one Samuel Carver, a classic “fixer” in the old sense of the word; imagine Charles Bronson’s cool-headed hitman in The Mechanic transposed as a firmly British hard man to the blindingly immediacy of the emerging Europe of 1997, armed with high-tech gizmos and subjected to constant surveillance. Formerly a Royal Marine, the tightly-wound Carver arranges accidents for a living. Need an Albanian slave trader to retire permanently? Hire Carver to put a monkey wrench into his private Bell JetRanger and send it plunging into the waters off the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia.
But Carver has some serious cracks in his armor and there are lines he won’t cross. “You know I don’t hit civilians, Max,” Carver warns his shadowy employer. Pressed back into service, Carver agrees to set up Pakistani terror broker Ramzi Hakim Narwaz. A relatively quiet death in the night in a busy tunnel in central Paris is all he imagines, no fuss and no blowback. No dummy, though, Carver quickly figures out that he’s been hung out to dry because of his cacophonous mistake (although blessedly, his tragic real-life victim is never named and the particulars of her demise are merely tangential to the fictional conspiracy at hand).
Now everyone wants Samuel Carver’s head. With fetching Russian beauty Alix Petrova at his side, Samuel has to dodge the British Secret Service, a dangerously proficient Russian hit squad and his backstabbing employers. It’s creative and entertaining storytelling that takes the best components of modern literary thrillers, combines them with the improvisational quality of the new breed of spy films and blends them into an ambitious and successfully implemented post-modern adventure. Neither shaken nor stirred, it’s more like being bounced on your head a few times while people are shooting at you, to borrow a sensibility from a Paul Greengrass flick. The Accident Man comes out in February from Viking and it’s worth all your pretty pennies to get a copy.
After finishing the book, I was asked to run down the elusive Mr. Cain for some feedback and a few minor quotes to spark interest in the book. But because the author was so open-minded and energized by the emerging interest in his dark little venture, he graciously agreed to answer my questions in sizeable detail by e-mail from his lair in the south of England. In the process, Tom Cain spills a lot more beans on The Accident Man’s origins and influences, explains how Daniel Craig almost derailed his book, and teases readers about the sequel that aims to set right its damaged hero.
What compels me to pick up The Accident Man?
Well, I suppose there’s a certain obvious curiosity factor that would lead a lot of people to pick up a book based on the premise that the hero is the man who killed Princess Diana. That was where I began: waking up in the early hours one morning with an image in my head of a man standing at the far end of the Alma Tunnel in Paris, waiting for the Mercedes to get within range… and he’s the hero of a book. But if that’s all there was, it would be nothing more than a quick, cheap, prurient thrill. Interestingly, neither the US nor the UK publishers who were interested in the book, nor the Hollywood studios that bid for the movie rights made an issue about the Diana-factor (except for a couple of corporate suits who were scared by it). They all, without exception, were interested in the characters: that guy in the tunnel and the people that he encounters. I think it’s that focus on those characters, and the relationships between them that has meant that women seem to enjoy The Accident Man just as much as men, which I’m really pleased by. So -- whether you were male or female -- once you started reading, I’d hope it would be the human story that gripped you and made you want to read more. Apart from the multiple chases, explosions, fights, sex and torture scenes, of course!
What tempted you to try your hand at thrillers?
I’ve written one other novel in the past: a satirical sex-comedy. As for thrillers, the truth is I love them, read them constantly and am far more interested in and admire professionally the best thriller-writers than 99.9 per cent of the authors who create supposedly highbrow, literary fiction. Anyone can waffle on pretentiously. But all the things that the literary elite (elite in their own minds only, I might add) profess to disdain -- plot, action, structure and so forth -- are actually the elements that are toughest to get right. So the writer in me admired the craft that goes into a thriller and wanted to see if I could do it. Turned out to be by far the hardest thing I’d ever done in my working life -- but worth it in the end. I’d also refer you to something Lee Child said to me this year, to wit: "The idea that thrillers are peripheral to literature drives me nuts. The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. The world was perilous and full of misery, so they wanted the vicarious experience of surviving danger. It’s the only real genre and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles."
I fully endorse that point of view. I was at a literary event recently, sitting on a panel, and a lady in the audience, a teacher, started going on about how pathetic and juvenile it was to write action scenes and sex scenes, since these only appealed to the fantasies of teenage boys. As politely as I could, and biting back the many expletive-laden insults I longed to fling in her direction, I pointed out what a pity it was that someone hadn’t bothered to tell Tolstoy this before he filled War and Peace with a series of epic descriptions of battle. Dostoyevsky and Conrad might have a word to say about the virtues of thriller-writing, too.
Did you start with the book’s infamous accident and work backward or start with this “fixer,” Samuel Carver?
As I said earlier, the specific idea of writing a book whose hero was the (hypothetical) assassin was a early-hours, light bulb-over-the-head moment. But I’d been thinking about the general subject-matter because I’d been ghosting the autobiography of an English aristocrat-turned-jailbird called Lord Charles Brocket (Call Me Charlie is its name, and a rattling good yarn it is, too, despite a truly appalling cover). Charlie was really fascinated by the Diana case, had a lot of theories about it, and we discussed the whole subject a lot as we were working. So that’s what put the events of that night in my mind, and let to the light bulb switching on. That’s also why Charlie is the first person thanked in the acknowledgements at the end of the book.
There’s a built-in controversy, as well as a juicy hook, in that the book admittedly spins on a famous car crash in the Alma Tunnel. Was there a conscious effort on your part to fictionalize it in a tactful manner?
Absolutely, and for a number of reasons. In the first place, I really didn’t want to write some tacky, prurient piece of junk that I’d end up being ashamed of. Writing a book is such a massive personal and emotional commitment, quite apart from the sheer time involved, that you’ve really got to care about what you’re doing and be able to feel good about it. Plus, I couldn’t see publishers or readers being interested in a book that made them feel grubby, just for looking at it. What I found was that the longer the writing process went on, the more Diana receded into the background, to the point where, by the time I’d finished, not even her name was there. The fact is, no one in the world needs to be told who died in a Mercedes, in Paris, on August 31, 1997. So it’s enough just to describe the event, and everybody gets it. In the short-term, this has meant that The Accident Man has not whipped up the kind of scandal-mongering press hysteria that it might have done, with all the instant sales that would follow from that. In the longer term, however, it means that Tom Cain is not forever known as a guy who writes exploitative trash. And that’s a trade I’m more than happy to make.
All of that said, I absolutely stand by my right, or any author’s right, to base a work of fiction on an event like that. In general -- and this picks up my earlier point about thriller-writing -- writers ought to be engaged in the interpretation of the world around them, and the events taking place in it. Homer was. Shakespeare was. Dickens was. The politically-correct idea that somehow there are certain subjects that aren’t "appropriate" seems to me mealy-mouthed and feeble, quite apart from being an(other) assault on free speech. In the specific case of Diana, I was never, and still am not, an obsessive conspiracy theorist. But the fact remains that she thought she was going to be murdered, in an accident. Millions of people think she was murdered. A vast series of investigations in France, the UK and the US (because the FBI have done their own) have been dedicated to finding out the truth of what happened. Why the hell wouldn’t a writer of fiction want to examine this phenomenon? The key issue was always one of quality. The best justification for writing the book is making sure that it’s good. That, more than anything, was my main concern.
Was it tricky to build the book around a single, real date in history?
The honest truth is no. For a journalist it was incredibly reassuring to have a kernel of fact with which to work. It made me feel a lot more secure as I was starting out. I was heading into really unfamiliar territory. But at least there was something within my professional experience that I could hang onto as I took my baby-steps. And the other massive benefit -- which I’m really only understanding now I’m working on a sequel -- is that the universal awareness of the significance of that Paris car-crash had an amazing short-cut effect for the reader. I didn’t have to explain, or play up, or invent the jeopardy that Carver finds himself in, immediately after the crash. Everybody gets it… Even if, ironically, Carver does not, at first, because he doesn’t know who was really in that car.
Talk to me a little about Carver’s methods. I’m assuming nifty devices like his “dazzler” (a blinding flashbang-like device used to disorient a driver) are based on real-world tools?
The dazzler does, indeed, exist. Charles Brocket talked to me about it and when I started doing proper research I soon found out that it was the conspiracy-theorists favourite explanation for the mysterious flash that several witnesses reported seeing immediately before the crash. As it happens, I later learned from an actual secret agent that if the crash had been a hit, there was another, better, cooler way of doing it. But I’m not giving that method away 'til the sequel! In general, I did a ton of research, a lot of it online, a lot through books and traditional media, and quite a bit of it face-to-face with experts in various fields. This was one area where years of reporting really helped: I’m very used to asking total strangers to tell me stuff they’d normally keep private. What was fun, though, was discovering how much happier people are to talk when you say that you’re writing a thriller, rather than a newspaper article. Contributing to a thriller sounds like fun. Giving away information to a journalist is very rarely that!
So you can sabotage a helicopter in the way I describe. The guns and ammo are all accurate. The voyage across the English Channel in the midst of a storm conforms to the actual conditions on a 36-foot boat in those seas. And that 50,000-volt torture-belt is also on sale at Interrogators-R-Us.
But I was very mindful of the fact that this is fiction. So what really matters is not that you get every factual detail 100 per cent right, but that you tell a damn good story. I mean, it’s not possible to wake up ever morning and have exactly the same day as you did yesterday… but that doesn’t stop Groundhog Day being a great movie. And last time I looked, there were no orcs, hobbits or walking, talking trees in my neighbourhood. Didn’t seem to bother Tolkein too much.
You have an advantage in your proximity to cities like London and Paris but are there challenges that present themselves in writing such a globe-trotting novel?
London is my hometown, so I didn’t need to research that. But you’re right, it was handy having Paris and Geneva relatively close at hand, and many of the locations I use in both cities are directly based on reality. For example, there’s a big fight-sequence in Les Egouts -- the sewer-museum of Paris. Well, you can go to that museum and walk through the whole route of the fight, because that’s what I did, taking hundreds of pictures to make sure that every single detail was accurate. Again, it really reassured the reporter in me to have all those factual supports. On the other hand, the Internet is so mind-bogglingly comprehensive these days that you can find pretty much anything you want without leaving your desk. For example, the Paris apartment and mansion that are the scenes of two big sequences were lifted directly from Internet real-estate ads. The hotel in Geneva where a seduction scene takes place is a real place, described thanks to the incredibly detailed panoramic picture-tours on its website. In my next book, there’s a long car chase across the hills of Provence which I did by Google-mapping the entire route, printing it all up and then filling an entire wall of my office with the resulting aerial photoscape. That was great fun, though -- in a number of different ways -- pretty damn freaky, too.
You’ve cited Lee Child as an influence but Samuel Carver is more brittle in some ways than some of the hard men that populate classic thrillers. What appeals to you about a flawed hero? Did you have a model in mind when building the book? Forsyth? Fleming? I find it interesting that early reviewers have name-checked both Bond and the cinematic Bourne, who really aren’t much alike.
The best way I can answer this is by describing the difference between my method and Lee Child’s. I was and still am a huge fan of the Reacher books, both the character of Jack Reacher and that incredibly terse, abbreviated way Lee writes. As I’ve suggested earlier, I’ve also had the great privilege of spending a fair amount of time discussing the whole craft of thriller-writing with Lee, and hearing him speak about it at public events. He’s very upfront about the fact that he sat down and envisioned a specific hero, with clearly defined characteristics, who could sustain a whole series of books, before he wrote a word of his first Reacher story. And a dozen books in, he is a thousand per cent clear about who Reacher is, how he thinks and behaves, and what he will or will not do. My approach to Carver was utterly different. I started with a story, or more specifically, a situation: that guy in the tunnel. So then the obvious questions were, Who is he? Why is he there?
Then came another question, "How am I going to make readers care enough about this guy that they want to know what happens for him, and root for him, even after he’s done this horrendous, unforgivable thing?" I knew I wanted the crash to come very early in the book, so I didn’t have much time at all in which to win the reader over. Solving that basic problem took the best part of eighteen months and it was a process that combined a certain amount of logical reasoning -- "How did he get the expertise to do this job? How can he be capable of carrying out an assassination without being a sociopath?" -- with a much more intuitive process of feeling my way into the character, trying to find some way I could understand and relate to him. Because -- you’ll be glad to hear -- I have no personal knowledge whatever of the techniques required to be an assassin… except, I suppose, for character assassination, which journalists know all about!
So Carver evolved in an entirely unplanned way, with the weird consequence that he’s kind of a mystery to me. If you ask Lee about Reacher, and his appeal to readers, particularly his army of female fans, he knows exactly what makes Reacher popular. I have no idea why people like Carver, still less why lots of women see to find him very attractive. And I really wish I knew the answer to the attraction thing, because then maybe I could use a bit of it myself! As for the flaws, I was very conscious of wanting to create a character who seemed real and reasonably complex, who had an awareness of his own moral position and was troubled by it, even if he did his best to suppress those uncertainties. I wanted his relationship with his heroine to be a real one, and since I think that most men are a lot less sexually and emotionally competent than we like to pretend -- which is why Bond is a fantasy figure, after all -- I liked the idea that however good Carver was at his work, he was no smarter than the rest of us schmucks at coping with a beautiful woman.
What was truly bizarre, though, was that I wasn’t the only person thinking like this. I began writing my book in the autumn of 2004. In my head, when I thought of Carver’s appearance, I had an actor who was then relatively unknown… guy by the name of Daniel Craig. A year later he was cast as Bond. I then had to change every physical description of Carver… also his name, because he was called Daniel Carver, not Samuel, back then, in a little homage to his inspiration.
But it got stranger still, because the guys who were writing Casino Royale had clearly been asking themselves the same fundamental question I’d been asking: what would this guy be like if he were a real human being, not a walking cliché. So when I went to see Casino Royale, which came out literally three days after I delivered the first draft of The Accident Man to my UK publishers, I was half bowled-over by how great it was, and half horrified by the weird similarities. For example, there’s a scene where Bond and Vesper Lind sit in a train, and Vesper does this whole thing about how he went to private school, but didn’t fit in with the other pupils… which is pretty much word-for-word what Carver tells Alix, the heroine, about his childhood in The Accident Man. But that’s not because I copied Bond. It’s because that was my damn childhood. The one thing in Carver that’s autobiographical is his account of his school days and the emotional effect they had. I needed a point of contact between me and him, and that was it … and then bloody 007 pinched it!
Then again, I did go to the same school as Ian Fleming, so perhaps that has something to do with it!
As to the Bond and Bourne comparisons, by which I’m very flattered by the way, I guess the way they connect is this. Carver is a British killer, who falls for a gorgeous Russian with a KGB past, which, I have to admit, does sound ridiculously Bond-esque. And he’s caught up in a giant conspiracy, centred on Paris, which is very Jason Bourne. I actually worried a lot about the whole Paris thing, because Da Vinci Code kicks off there, too. But what can you do? The lady wasn’t killed in Berlin, or Rome, or Des Moines, Iowa… she was killed in Paris. So that’s where it had to be.
I am a huge fan of the Bond books, but not so much of the movies (except Casino Royale, which brings the whole franchise screaming into the 21st century). And I’m a huge fan of the Bourne movies, but not the books (except for the initial amnesiac set-up, which is a premise worthy of any franchise).
One other thing: one of the British broadsheet newspapers gave Accident Man a nice-but-snooty review, which basically said that the idea was great, but that it descended into a cross between a Frederick Forsyth novel and the Bourne movies. The reviewer, clearly meant this as an insult. I thought to myself, "You condescending prick. Most people will think that’s a GOOD thing!" So I insisted that the UK paperback used his line in bold on the jacket. We’re a combative bunch, us Fleet Street hacks… but I’d like to think we have a sense of humour about it, too!
The best series characters are multifaceted. What do you think are Carver’s virtues and vices?
It’s not just series characters, it’s people that are multifaceted. I’ve been lucky enough to spend years getting paid for meeting and talking to some of the world’s most interesting inhabitants. I always felt, as an interviewer, that the answer to a person’s character was not either/or but both. So Diana, for example, was astonishingly charismatic, iconic, great at creating a rapport with strangers, wonderful with children and sincere in her desire to do good … but she was also needy, often unhappy, desperate to manipulate the media, and far more promiscuous than Charles. Often, people’s virtues and vices arise from the same source, or reflect the same thing in two different ways. So, with Carver, he’s very good at his job because he can switch off his emotions and carry out terrible deeds in what he believes to be a good cause. But because he does that, he’s also deeply repressed and messed-up (these are things we English public schoolboys know all about, by the way). He is cold-blooded, ruthless -- all the things a thriller hero has to be. But his great redeeming quality, I think, is that he knows how messed-up he is and wants to do something about it. That’s why his love-affair with Alix is so important to him, and the book.
The other point about Carver is that he’s not superman. He can’t have any woman he wants, just by clicking his fingers, like Bond. He can’t go 24 hours without eating, sleeping or urinating, like Jack Bauer. He has a set of professional skills, acquired through years of training and experience, which make him extremely competent at his job. By the nature of his work, he’s physically fit. I was very conscious that I didn’t want him to be an alcoholic, or recovering junkie, or any of those other standard means by which authors try to give their heroes a bit of edge. He’s not a bad person, not messed-up to the point where interactions with other people are bound to be disastrous.
Carver’s just a bloke in his mid-thirties, who’s been working at his business for about fifteen years, one way or another, and is getting to that point where you think, "Is that it?" He gets messed about by his bosses. He screws things up. But -- and here’s the obsessive Springsteen fan in me -- he’s got one last chance to make it real… and this book tells you how that pans out.
You’re writing the sequel to The Accident Man. Without blowing the ending of this book for anybody, is there anything you want to reveal about it at this point? Will it pick up in 1998?
The book picks up pretty much where Accident Man leaves off. For reasons that I can’t really explain, this has certain very tricky consequences, which have presented a major technical challenge. I’m not yet sure if that challenge has yet been overcome, so let’s get to the good news which is that it’s almost certainly called The House of War, and that it’s also based on reality.
You’re a respected journalist in your native country. What inspired you to create an alter ego?
Well, in the first place, I thought Tom Cain was a good name to slap on the covers of big, fat thrillers that would get piled up in airport bookstalls, the whole world over. (Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hoping). Also, precisely because I’d spent so many years doing a particular kind of writing under a particular name, I wanted a new name for this new kind of writing. It felt liberating, like I could create a new identity for myself, and write in a new voice. And frankly, it was fun. Here I am, a guy in my forties, and I’ve got the chance to reinvent my dull old self as this cool, mysterious creator of rocking action-adventures. I may be a middle-aged scribe, sitting in a country cottage, tapping out the words amidst the regular family-guy clutter of children, wife, pets, mortgage-payments, flooding drains and unhappy bank-managers. But Tom Cain strikes me as the kind of super-confident guy who drives fast cars, seduces beautiful women and dominates an entire room with the sheer, magnetic force of his personality. So I thought I’d be him for a while, see how that worked…
Hell, a guy can dream, can’t he?