Book Review

'The Accident': One hot book makes for mucho mayhem

Chris Pavone's new thriller centers on a dangerous manuscript in a dying publishing world

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Chris Pavone was a book editor for nearly two decades, and his new book, “The Accident,” is partly about the workings of the publishing industry. The novel will have special appeal to writers, agents, editors — all those people engaged in buying and promoting books.

The premise of the book is that a manuscript was delivered in person to a busy agency in New York, but that nobody saw the deliverer. The recipient is an agent who reads the story, staying up all night to do so; she is shaken by what she reads because it reflects part of her life.

At the same time she believes the book is the biggest thing to happen to publishing for a long time. It’s a biography of a cable news innovator who turned the news into gossipy entertainment.

This man has done a lot of bad things, messing in foreign governments and killing scores of their citizens as collateral damage, but the emphasis of the manuscript is on a drunken youthful accident and its subsequent cover-up. Only one other person has supposedly seen this book — the agent’s young assistant who was impressed enough to pass it on.

By Chris Pavone
Crown ($26).

Writers will feel a certain pain to be reminded that agents and editors constantly paste on smiles, bellyache about the manuscripts they have to read, grumble about propping up the egos of authors. The book business is treated as a losing proposition in spite of the fact that everyone believes this one mysteriously delivered book could turn around their own careers.

Another major occupation of the book is the current technological means for spying on ordinary citizens. Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay have published thrillers that capitalize on technological marvels.

“The Accident” insists that any citizen can be monitored 24/7 with surveillance cameras, cell phone bugs, clever GPS devices — all of these things cleverly hidden of course. That stranger who bumps you in a coffee shop might be planning to kill you.

For much of the book — whether we’re in Copenhagen, Zurich, New York, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else in the wide world — two things happen repeatedly. Characters say, “You must never ever show a copy of this manuscript to anyone,” and those same characters not only show the book to someone but also make copies. (It’s kind of amazing that nobody scans it; it’s all about photocopying.)

So the dangerous book, purported to be able to bring down governments, soon exists in a lot of places. A good portion of “The Accident” deals with eradicating the people who have the manuscript, so there are lots of corpses, nice guys and not.

Both Mr. Pavone’s novel and the inner manuscript are titled “The Accident.” One problem is that when Mr. Pavone gives us snippets of that hot manuscript, both the telling and the story seem commonplace. Drunk kids, car, lust, death, cover-up —all very familiar.

So we just have to take it on faith that the book is important enough to bring down governments and expose American meddling in foreign politics. Since the author’s relationship to the reader is likely mirrored by the characters’ relations to each other, it’s no surprise that Mr. Pavone often tricks us. And that he’s cavalier about killing. He’s playing. Is he playing fair? Not everyone will think so.

Kate, who made her appearance in Mr. Pavone’s first thriller, “The Expats,” reappears here. In one scene, she is about to be shot. The gun is on her. Yet she muses for pages over her life decisions. This scene is meant to be fun — reversals and betrayals, withheld information, tricks played upon the reader.

Readers will either get with the program or feel the game isn’t quite fair. The most honest and committed part of the book is the mourning of the publishing industry. Here is the opinion of a character who is a subsidiary rights agent:

“… then that big bully of a beast rose up and ate her profession. First the Web devoured book clubs, then magazines, and now its maw is agape, ravenous, ready to swallow the whole bloody publishing business.” The ethos of the agency: “to sign as many clients and make as many deals as possible before the so-called brands became mature. The deadwood could then fall away, replaced by younger, hotter talent with their best years ahead of them.”

In those sections Mr. Pavone is allowing some straight-out feeling to slip through. Otherwise there isn’t much feeling to attach to. You will either get with the game or not. It’s a dark comic caper — broad, unlikely and frothy.

Kathleen George is the author of seven Richard Christie mysteries and the novel “The Johnstown Girls.” She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

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