A Review of “The Accident Man”

The Accident Man (Samuel Carver, #1)The Accident Man by Tom Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fictional stories that spin off of historical events are always fascinating. I don’t mean fictional accounts of the lives of historical people…although those are fascinating as well. I mean novels that take a historical event and ask, “what if?” That is what Tom Cain does with The Accident Man, and he chooses a particularly sensitive subject historically: the death of Princess Diana. Specifically, Cain uses the fictional premise (although he specifically denies attempting to set forth or support any sort of conspiracy theory in his preface) that Princess Diana’s death was not accidental, but rather an assassination. His protagonist, Samuel Carver (who will debut here and will recur in future novels), is the assassin. He specializes in making his hits look like accidents, and only assassinates people whom he deems to truly deserve their fate, without knowing from whom his orders come. With this job, however, Carver has been double-crossed, and unknowingly murders one of the world’s most loved public figures, in order to further the political and financial goals of his employers. The rest of the book is about his discovery of this, his employers’ attempts to in turn kill him when he displays a conscience, and his quest for revenge.

I’ve always loved the espionage and suspense genre, and have gravitated toward books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the Bourne trilogy. I grew up devouring the entirety of the James Bond library, from Ian Fleming’s original works forward. What strikes me the most about this book is the consistency between Cain’s world and Fleming’s world for Bond. For example, when Carver takes a shower, he first takes a steaming hot shower, followed by an ice cold shower. This was a trademark of James Bond when Ian Fleming wrote him; Bond always took his showers this way. I was also struck by the female character’s (an unwitting spy who is drawn into a job she hates by people she hates) line after they sleep together, something to the effect of “it’s never been like that before.” I thought to myself, if that wasn’t a James Bond-like line, I don’t know what is.

The reason that I find this fascinating is because this is the first of Cain’s books featuring Carver’s character. He is creating a character much like Bond, and doing it well. However, he is creating a darker version of Bond, one that doesn’t function with patriotic allegiance, but rather with allegiance to the highest bidder, justifying his relativistic ethics with a survival instinct. This can be taken as an interesting commentary on how our world is now as opposed to the Cold War era of Fleming. In essence, Cain is asking a second question in this novel: what would James Bond look like in a modern world of blurred lines between nations where patriotism is no longer an acceptable motive and anyone or anything can be purchased, including life and death?

Cain develops his protagonist fully as he follows a very Bond-like plot, mastering what Fleming did so well with his master spy: balancing his human vulnerability with his deadly professional expertise. Carver’s backstory is interspersed well throughout the book, never bogging the reader down and always contributing to what Carver is doing at that moment. Cain uses interesting language choices for his narration, drawing emotional analogies to the sorts of physical items that would appear in a spy’s life, for example. Cain also develops his other characters, although his villain is not nearly as original or even as memorable as a Bond villain. He makes up for this, however, in the brutality of his villain.

And therein lies part of the problem. The story absorbs the reader breathlessly until around page 300. From that point until the end of the book, Cain moves the plot in a direction that is decidedly like Casino Royale, with some notable differences: the twist with the female character doubles back on itself, the torture scene is even more savage (as unbelievable as that sounds), and the protagonist is not pictured as recovering well. In fact, we wonder how he will return in future books at all after the abuse he survives and the condition in which it leaves him. The interrogation and torture scene goes on for multiple chapters, and left me disturbed well into the next day. I found this to be un-necessary (especially as other characters undergo interrogation during the course of the book, with significantly less graphic descriptions) and so long that it completely robbed the story of its momentum in the closing chapters. The plot line for these adventures, after all, is relatively predictable: we know the protagonist will be captured and interrogated. That’s just part of the genre. This is one area, however, in which Cain shouldn’t have attempted to out-do Fleming, especially as Cain had done so well at making his violence succinct and effective up until this point.

Cain’s dark, post-modern version of Bond is worth reading, if only to experience this contemporary take on the master-spy character in literature. If you like the genre, and can handle the graphic violence in the closing chapters, this would be a good book for you. Tom Cain has given us a character to consider, and Samuel Carver may well be a spy that will be mentioned in all future discussions of the genre. Time will tell. Will I read another Samuel Carver novel? Only time will tell that, as well.

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