Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cain Makes a Killing

Beginning tomorrow, The Rap Sheet will post--in three parts, over three successive days--a never-before-seen short story called “Bloodsport.” It’s the work of Tom Cain, the pseudonymous British journalist turned author who has already won praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his first two thrillers--The Accident Man (2007) and No Survivors (2008, published in the UK as The Survivor)--and has a third one just out in Britain called Assassin.

Like those novels, “Bloodsport” stars the shadowy figure of Samuel Carver. Cain describes the plot of this first-ever Carver short story this way:
Samuel Carver is an angry man. The protagonist of The Accident Man, The Survivor, and Assassin, whose specialty is creating deniable assassination by means of unattributable “accidents,” has just discovered that one of his former brother officers in the SBS (Special Boat Service) has been killed in Afghanistan. The man died very horribly and painfully in the hands of the Taliban, lost for want of the helicopter that should have airlifted him to safety.

Suddenly, a situation that has long been a matter of principled outrage to Carver has become very personal. So he reacts in the way that he knows best. He decides to make a bad thing happen to what he believes is a bad person; the person he holds responsible for the death of his friend and many other fine soldiers--the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In the tradition of Rogue Male and The Day of the Jackal, Carver stalks his prey. In this case he does not choose the boulevards of Paris as his hunting ground, nor the hills and forests of Germany. Instead he goes to the hills of northern England, where the prime minister is taking his
summer holiday.

I first heard about “Bloodsport” during last weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, when I fell into conversation with Cain himself. The Accident Man was one of 14 books shortlisted for the 2009 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and he had come to see whether it would beat out its estimable competition. (It didn’t; Mark Billingham walked away with the award for his 2007 novel, Death Message.) During our time together, Cain mentioned that he’d penned a Carver short story, but didn’t know how best to use it. Its subject matter is extremely topical, given the recent controversy surrounding the shortage of British helicopters on the Afghanistan and Iraq battlegrounds, the ever-increasing unpopularity in the UK of the so-called war on terror, and the sagging poll ratings for Britain’s Labour government. However, he admitted that it might rub some people the wrong way, and so few on this side of “the pond” would even consider publishing it.

After reading his story, I contacted Rap Sheet editor Jeff Pierce to see if he was interested in taking “Bloodsport.” We e-mailed back and forth a few times, talked once on the phone, and agreed that Cain’s story deserved to be read. Uncut. In three parts. On this page. Cain was excited to hear that his work would see the light of day.

To help introduce “Bloodsport,” I’ve written up an interview I conducted with Tom Cain during the Harrogate festival. During our discussion, I asked him more about “Bloodsport” and whether it’s destined to kick off a whole series of Samuel Carver short stories. We talked about his having recently joined The Curzon Group of British thriller writers, and about the current, abysmal state of print journalism. And I asked him for background on Assassin, a novel that has been earning some great reviews, including one in the e-zine Shots that begins:
Sam Carver--the “Accident Man”--is back, and appears to be going about his old trade of killing people. But is it really Carver out there, first knocking off a despicable people-trafficker, then a gangland money-launderer? For his MI6 contacts, Grantham and his subordinate, Bill Selsey, the killings certainly carry the Carver hallmark, and the description of the killer matches him to a T. Yet he has supposedly sworn off the killing game for good. So what’s going on?

Coming as this does just prior to U.S. President Lincoln Roberts’ intended public stance against the evils of people-trafficking, with an open-air speech in Bristol, it is a distraction nobody in the security world wants.

Unknown to them all, Damon Tyzack, a former SBS colleague of Carver’s and a man who lost his job because of Carver’s recommendation, is now a hit man with a very high-powered employer, with strong links to people- and drugs-trafficking gangs across Europe. And they do not intend standing by while the U.S. president talks war.

Furthermore, Tyzack hates Carver with a venom.
Our interview follows. It provides a good set-up for reading “Bloodsport,” which as I said before, will begin running tomorrow on this same page. Stay tuned.

Ali Karim: You’ve been out and about a lot over the last year, putting in showings at Bouchercon in Baltimore last fall, and more recently at ThrillerFest and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. So tell us a bit about your adventures on the convention trail.

Tom Cain: Mostly, I just moan about how totally jet-lagged I am! I seem to have lost the knack of crossing the Atlantic and functioning when I get to the other side. Until I can recover it, I think I should probably attend horror/fantasy conventions instead, because I’m basically a zombie. That aside, by far the best thing about the convention scene to me is the chance to meet other writers, bloggers, retailers, and of course readers. Over the past couple of years, I feel I’ve moved from being an individual, working in my office, to a member of a group of like-minded individuals. Best of all, I’ve made a lot of good friends.

AK: At Harrogate last month, The Accident Man was shortlisted for the Old Peculier Award. How do you feel about success in winning awards versus commercial success?

TC: Well, commercial success is what pays the bills, so I suppose that has to be the main aim, particularly when times are so hard--in general, and in our business, in particular. But these days, big sales are getting harder and harder for anyone outside a very small, elite group to find. So awards are a way of raising one’s profile and, with any luck, [one’s] prestige within the thriller-writing field. That, in turn, may lead to more critical attention, which is one way of increasing sales. Plus, it’s incredibly fulfilling, on a purely human level, to think that one’s work is enjoyed and rated highly by one’s peers. Who wouldn’t like that?

AK: The Old Peculier Award nomination is a measure of your appeal in Britain. But how have the Americans reacted to your first two novels, The Accident Man and No Survivors?

TC: I’ve been incredibly pleased, touched, and I guess honored by the reactions I’ve had from other writers and from the specialist booksellers, magazines, and blogs. Not to mention the people who’ve read my books and enjoyed them. Unlike in the UK, many regular American book-buyers haven’t reacted to the novels one way or another as yet, because they haven’t known about them enough, I guess. That’s the real issue I have to confront and deal with over the next couple of years. Perhaps I need to work harder in the U.S. to build up the readership, especially in today’s tough publishing environment. Of course, if the Accident Man movie ever gets made, that could change, and fast!

AK: Considering the controversial aspects of your work, what with the death of a popular princess in a Parisian tunnel in The Accident Man, followed by a manically fundamentalist Christian nutter who tries to bring on “the Rapture” in your second novel, were you nervous about reader reactions?

TC: Well, I’m used to writing about controversial subjects as a journalist and (though this hasn’t happened for a while). I’ve faced about as much in the way of abusive reviews, snide profiles, and general media poison as any writer is ever likely to get. I’m pretty much immune to it now. My only concerns would be if I actually wrote something that attracted the attention of the authorities (ever more possible as antiterrorism laws are used to stifle free speech), or I somehow antagonized a special-interest group--or a criminal one, come to that. I wouldn’t want my family to get caught up in any crap of my creating. But, hey, I’ve just written a short story about an attack on a British prime minister, so clearly any worries aren’t inhibiting me thus far!

All that said, I’m pretty careful not to give offense just for the sake of it. Carver is not a remotely political character, the books take no party/political line, and I do let my villains state their case. I always admired the way that The West Wing, while it clearly offered a liberal Democratic fantasy of a hero president, at a time when the real one was George W. Bush, often gave really good arguments to its Republican characters. So I try to let the devils have some reasonably good tunes ... and it’s kept them quiet so far.

AK: So why was the UK title of your second book, The Survivor, tweaked to become No Survivors for its U.S. release?

TC: Actually, it was more like No Survivors got tweaked to The Survivor for the UK release. It was just a case of different publishers having different views on what would work best for the book. My personal choice was No Survivors, because I felt it was more dramatic. On the other hand, I have to admit that The Survivor makes more sense, since it describes the set-up of the book more clearly; it’s more positive; and it also follows The Accident Man as being a descriptor of a person. So in the end, I was easy either way.

AK: Your third Samuel Carver novel, Assassin, has been gathering some great reviews since its release last month in Britain. Did you feel as much pressure in writing this new novel as you did in writing No Survivors, that oft-dreaded second novel?

TC: Yes and no. Yes, because there was a helluva lot of personal/family stuff going on in my life which I can’t really talk about, but which hugely impacted my ability to work. No, because I felt much more confident as a writer; I wasn’t boxed-in by the plot, the way I had been with No Survivors (starting a book with your main protagonist immobile and out of his mind is NOT recommended for an easy life!). And I was absolutely determined to make [Assassin] much simpler and more direct in its structure and plot. No Survivors was incredibly complex, in the way it interwove multiple plot strands. Assassin is far more stripped down. I always compare it to a band that’s just made an arty, complex concept album. Next time they get into the studio, they think, “Fuck it, let’s just rock!”

AK: I did miss Carver’s sidekick in this third book, the exotic Russian spy Alix Petrova. Without giving too much away, tell us: are we going to see her return sometime?

TC: Hmm. I can’t say for sure and I don’t want to give too much away. But I am definitely toying with something Alix-related. Won’t be Carver #4, that’s for sure, because I’ve already started that without her ... But I definitely do have something up my sleeve. I like that girl, that’s for sure, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her again ... Though my wife absolutely hates her. Can’t think why!

AK: In Assassin, Carver’s turned from being a “poacher” to being a “gamekeeper,” now advising high-profile people on how to avoid assassination, and the narrative is peppered with fascinating trade-craft. How much research was entailed in getting that trade-craft just right?

TC: I had some communications with the U.S. Secret Service, and I did all the usual location-scouting and technical research. But to be honest, this [book] was much less research-heavy than the previous two, because so much of the story was character-driven. Assassin isn’t so much of a big, sprawling conspiracy-fest as The Accident Man or No Survivors. It’s much more of a down-’n’-dirty battle between two men--with a beautiful, feisty, funny woman caught (of course!) between them.

AK: Assassin finds Carver traversing America and Europe on the trail of an old colleague-turned-foe in a deadly cat-and-mouse game. There are plenty of complicated twists. So can we assume that you worked from pretty detailed plotting notes?

TC: Nope. When I write a book I have a basic idea of what it’s about, who the main characters will be; [I have] a few key images in my head and a rough sense of how it has to end. Aside from that, though, I never do treatments, chapter outlines, character notes, anything. I just let it rip and see what happens.

It’s scarier that way, because you have no safety net and there’s always the fear that you don’t have enough of a story--I have precisely that terror right now, in fact, about Book 4. But all the best stuff I’ve ever written has come as a surprise to me. It’s just sprung from the dark recesses of my subconscious. So I just trust that the surprises will keep on coming. And then I count on 30 years as a professional writer to provide the discipline to make it fit together on the page. Still, I was relieved to hear Lee Child describe his equally spontaneous working method at Harrogate just recently. Good to know I’m not the only one.

AK: The problems of U.S. presidential security have been highlighted since Barack Obama moved into the White House earlier this year. Was his campaign for the presidency your springboard for Assassin?

TC: I had the rough concept of Assassin by the time that the Democratic Party primaries started, back in February ’08. I knew that there would be a trafficked woman as a main character, and I wanted to have a president who set out to abolish the terrible global evil of 21st-century slavery. I also wanted that president to be African American, because it seemed to be a very powerful image to have a descendant of slaves battling slavery today. An immensely powerful black character saving a helpless white one--Lara Dashian, the girl with whom the story starts--was just interesting to me. Then Obama suddenly became a global superstar and I realized that people might think I was writing about him. I started having to junk a lot of stuff. For example, there was a chapter in which my character, Lincoln Roberts, was interviewed by Time magazine and he set forward this whole idealistic, impassioned belief in restoring the moral standing of America as the “city upon a hill” ... and the next thing I knew, Obama was making speeches that were freakishly similar.

So actually, the only security issue I had about Obama was that I wanted to strangle him for pinching all my best lines and making me rewrite my character!

AK: There is a great deal of detail within your book’s back-story about people-smuggling and the sex trade. Can we assume that your experiences as a journalist provided the background for all of that?

TC: Only insofar as I’d been to a couple of the locations I used in the slavery sections of the book, principally Dubai. Oddly enough, I’d gone there in the winter of 2006, when I was desperately trying to finish The Accident Man. I was rundown, the weather in England was cold and depressing (nothing new there, then), and I just wanted to lock myself in a hotel room, somewhere warm, so I could write, have the occasional swim, and live off room service. I ended up in Dubai. This was at the absolute height of the construction-boom there, when they were essentially building the equivalent to all of Manhattan in one go. The image of the place really stuck with me. As for the slavery itself, I just read books (credited in my acknowledgments, I might add), tracked down a ton of articles, films, etc. online, and used my imagination. And again, I really concentrated on character. I really wanted Lara to be a believable, sympathetic young woman. The other thing I realized is that sex-trafficking is one of those phenomena where no matter how wild our imagination, the truth is even more bizarre and disgusting. The more unbelievable an incident is in the slavery sections of Assassin, the more likely it is to be based on something true.

AK: Carver’s nemesis here, Damon Tyzack, is an interesting character and perhaps the dark side of “The Accident Man.” Had you visualized him before the plotting, or did he appear once the plot was crystallized in your mind?

TC: Tyzack was definitely a character who evolved. His genesis came when I was doing a mad late-night radio talk-show promoting Accident Man. I was sitting in my study in England, talking to a host in California and phone-in callers from all over the States, and I was having a helluva time getting anyone to grasp the point that the book was a novel and that, the [Paris tunnel] crash aside, I’d made it all up. Anyway, the host seemed to think I was some kind of expert on the lives of real-life assassins and he said, “So how does a guy get ahead in that career?” And while I was trying to think of an answer aside from “How the fuck would I know?” he provided one of his own: “I guess they just kill the guy ahead of them.” So then I said, “Thanks, you just gave me my next book!” That’s where Tyzack started: a guy who wants to kill the next guy up the ladder. I saw it as a metaphor for corporate life. Anyway, Tyzack changed, as I decided that I wanted his motivation to be more personal, more of a long-held grudge against Carver. But the crucial change--which I owe to the wonderful Peta Nightingale, who reads and edits my stuff at my literary agents, LAW [Lucas Alexander Whitley]--was that instead of Tyzack being an obviously psychotic brute (as he had been), he became in many ways superior to Carver. He’s much more socially confident, posher, wittier and, as he points out to Carver, he doesn’t really do anything Carver hasn’t done too. So he’s much more of a challenge to Carver’s idea of himself (and our idea of him) as an essentially good man, obliged to do bad things. Tyzack forces Carver to examine his character and his actions--but in the course of a particularly sadistic interrogation, naturally, rather than a fireside chat.

AK: Tomorrow, The Rap Sheet will begin serializing “Bloodsport,” the first Samuel Carver short story. Tell us how that story came about.

TC: It arose from my appalling addiction to Facebook. At some point in one of my endless online chats, someone said something about Gordon Brown, our prime minister, who is about as popular in the UK as Bush was in the U.S., and I joked, “Maybe I should send Carver after him!” (or words to that effect). And then I thought, “You know what, maybe there’s something in that ...” And from there it all went spiraling into madness!

AK: Like The Accident Man, “Bloodsport” contains a very controversial premise. Were you worried about writing the tale, or publishing it?

TC: I was bloody nervous when someone at The Curzon Group, an alliance of British thriller writers, pointed out that anyone deemed to be inciting acts of terrorism was liable to arrest and, if found guilty, lengthy imprisonment. But when I looked at what I’d actually written, I thought that it was very clearly not an incitement to anything, so then my panic subsided. And luckily, the lawyers agreed.

AK: I really enjoyed reading “Bloodsport,” as it packs a powerful punch and message. Is it also perhaps the first step toward more Sam Carver short fiction?

TC: I think so. I really enjoyed doing it and I loved the speed that the Internet allows--much more like journalism than regular novel-writing. I mean, I go nuts waiting for my books to come out, especially the editions outside the UK, which can be delayed up to a year. There’s such a danger of becoming outdated as the whole process grinds on. With this, I could have an idea and--bam!--there it was. I’d have got it out a week sooner too, if ... no, better not go there! Anyway, I think Carver will definitely have more of these instant, mini-adventures.

AK: I assume you’re familiar with Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male and Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal ...

TC: Oh yeah, absolutely ... and “Bloodsport” is following on from both those books in the sense of it being about a lone hunter stalking a political leader. That said, Rogue Male is one of the most important books in thriller-writing history--you can see the assassin genre being created right there in front of your eyes. And for me, Day of the Jackal is just about the best thriller ever written. It breaks so many rules: the hero is a totally unsympathetic character, whose identity remains unknown even when the books ends; and the ending is inevitable, since it is a historical fact that President [Charles] de Gaulle was not assassinated. Yet it still grips from the first sentence to the last. “Bloodsport,” by contrast, is a very slight piece of whimsy. It’s a little nibble, as opposed to a socking great steak. But I hope it’s a tasty, spicy little nibble!

AK: Let’s go back to your mention of The Curzon Group. Are you involved in that group’s so-called airport tour?

TC: Well, I’ve joined and I blog every Monday. As for the airport tour, which I think is a great idea, I honestly don’t know how much I can be involved--this year, at least--for the family reasons cited earlier. But if they do it again next year, and let me tag along, I’ll certainly be there.

AK: If I can be frank, the purpose of The Curzon Group is to promote British thriller writing--but I think the Tom Cain novels are very “American” in terms of the writing style, even if they are British in origin. What are your thoughts on the differences between UK and U.S. thriller fiction?

TC: I’m quite torn between the two sides of the Atlantic. As a person, I’m very British. I sound British when I speak. I had a very traditional upper-class English education (paid for by the government, but that’s another story). On the other hand, I lived abroad from my earliest childhood, I’ve worked abroad a lot--particularly in the States--and I have a lifelong love of America. To this day, I watch far more American TV series than British ones. I’m as passionate about the Washington Redskins as I am about West Ham (with just about equally disillusioning results). And I read for more American than British writers.

I think the kind of action thriller I do, though there are a host of British precedents, is essentially an American form. England is not a country big enough or wild enough to contain a thriller. Why else is Jack Reacher American? It’s no coincidence that one of the worst [James] Bond books, Moonraker, is the one set in England. Bond needs fancier locations. So does Carver. What Brits do well is seediness, grubbiness, despair, decay, intimacy ... grubby little crimes committed in a country going down the crapper. I can see the merit in that, but it’s never been my thing.

AK: Considering that the Samuel Carver novels are very tightly edited, giving them a fast and visual style, is there any more news on film or TV rights yet?

TC: The whole movie situation is a typical Hollywood tale and I can’t really go into details. Paramount had the original option. That is now in play elsewhere. Suffice it to say that there is reason to hope for some positive news within the next few months, or even weeks.

AK: And as a former journalist, what are your thoughts on the terrible state of the print media? David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter and creator of the TV show The Wire, has said that he fears for society when journalists were being laid off, because they are our society’s watch-keepers.

TC: My thoughts are virtually suicidal. David Simon is right. If you get rid of proper, professional journalism you risk giving unfettered power to politicians, corporations, and anyone else who wants to screw us around without being held accountable. Plus, as a professional writer, I get very, very angry with the notion that there is essentially no such thing as copyright any more, and no reason for anyone to pay to be informed or entertained. I have the old-fashioned idea that I want to get paid for my work, my craft, and my decades of experience. I’ve yet to hear a good moral justification of the notion that I, or anyone else, should not be paid.

AK: I see that you’re on Twitter as well as Facebook. How are you getting on with all this new technology?

TC: I don’t know too much about the technology, but I am addicted to Facebook. I went up to Harrogate recently on the train, five hours there and back. I spent at least three hours of each journey online. I did not open a book. I realized then that, as professional writers of fiction, we are in deep, deep shit. So whatever I say about the unfairness of our situation, we may just have to get used to it.

AK: I know that you are extremely well read in the thriller-fiction genre. Can you tell us what books have passed over your reading table that really impressed you?

TC: This is a helluva corny answer, but the truth is, I bought [Stieg Larsson’s] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo months after everyone else. I went through the early sections, which are slow, dreary, and lacking in any tension whatever and thought, “Why the hell has everyone got so excited about this?” Then [protagonist] Lisbeth Salander appeared, and I got it. She is such a rare thing: a totally fresh, original character. To be honest, I still don’t give a monkey’s about anything else in that book or the sequel. But I’m gripped just because of her.

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