By the Book: In a New Thriller, Suspense Is No Accident

"The Accident" by Chris Pavone
"The Accident" by Chris Pavone

The Accident, the title of Chris Pavone’s new thriller, is also the title of a manuscript that’s at the center of the book. The epilogue to the manuscript, “The Accident,” appears in the The Accident’s prologue, where an unidentified author, signing himself Anonymous, “awakens suddenly in terror” because he realizes that in revising his autobiographical manuscript he forgot to move it into the third person—for protection. This enigmatic beginning hints at the convoluted tale
that follows.

Who is this Anonymous and why has he sent a hard copy of his manuscript to Isabel Reed, a top New York literary agent? The narrative proper begins with Reed reading the manuscript and sensing that it could be a blockbuster. She gives it to a trusted editor who agrees with Reed’s assessment that it could be THE book of the year. “The Accident,” as the interpolated excerpts in The Accident show, is an exposé that would dethrone an all-powerful media mogul named Charlie Wolfe. The manuscript tells of a fatal accident that happened 15 years earlier when Charlie Wolfe and his Cornell roommate, Dave Miller, took off in a car with a drunken girl whom Charlie starts to rape in the backseat. When she tried to flee she was inadvertently run over and killed. The Accident details how Wolfe, a rich, spoiled ne’er do well, got his powerful father clean up his mess, a cleanup that included a forced pay off to Dave Miller in order to ensure his silence.

Years go by. Wolfe, sober and newly focused, becomes a kind of Rupert Murdoch, head of Wolfe Worldwide Media, incredibly powerful and well connected. He has billions of dollars and political ambitions, and becomes aware of the manuscript in Isabel’s possession. Revelation of the accident would endanger his empire, as well as threaten the high-level movers and shakers he works with, and so Wolfe enlists a top man in the CIA to carry out a black op maneuver to destroy the manuscript. To complicate things, several people, greedy for fame and fortune, have surreptitiously made copies and start shopping these around. The black op guy has his work cut out for him.

Pavone keeps the twists and turns coming until the end. By then, however, suspense has been supplanted by mere surprise at new revelations, and the chase to destroy manuscript copies and those who have them takes on some improbable aspects, including intrepid sleuthing and bold courage by the literary agent Reed.

Despite print and online praise calling The Accident an ingenious thriller, a reader may at times find the plot difficult to follow and the major characters less than attractive, while new ones keep cropping up, usually only to be killed off. Readers may also tire of Pavone’s habit of interrupting his narrative with caustic commentary on the affectations and hypocrisies of contemporary society. The constant swipes slow down the action, even as they are at times diverting. Pavone savages just about everything, but the publishing world in particular (he used to be an editor and his wife is an executive at a prominent publishing group). He likewise disparages those 20-something girls who huddle in trendy bars “with their chunky eyeglasses and liberal arts degrees, inhaling pinot grigio and cubes of dried-out Manchego.”

The off-topic comments are insistently and arbitrarily inserted into the text: “Los Angeles has the film business, and Paris has fashion; Berlin is for espionage.” Of course, the Hamptons get it too, with their gorgeous girls who land jobs as au pairs “for one of those ‘bankery’ families whose women and children spend their summer in Bridgehampton, while Dad comes out at the weekend to get tight and grope the help in the butler’s pantry.” (Pavone summers and weekends on the North Fork, and some scenes in the book are set
in Amagansett.)

It’s all a bit much, epitomized perhaps by this sentence toward the end: “It was a lifetime ago…that Hayden [the CIA operative] sailed from Cape Cod to Iceland, across the North Atlantic all the way to the volcanic-rocky landfall of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula on the 64th parallel, the same latitude as central Alaska, or Siberia, or Greenland.” Enjoyable? Yes. Suspenseful? Hmmm…

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