Call them spies like us: Novelist Chris Pavone has a tremendous talent for taking characters with the most mundane lives and propelling them into spectacular jeopardy. His debut novel, The Ex-Pats, about an American housewife hiding a secret life in Luxembourg, was an international best-seller that won the Edgar and Anthony awards for Best First Novel. Now Pavone returns with The Accident, another stand-alone that brings forward supporting characters from The Ex-Pats while telling an entirely different story guaranteed to keep readers up late.
An anonymous book has landed on the desk of literary agent Isabel Reed, and it’s an astonishing, explosive exposé. It tells the story of media mogul Charlie Wolfe, a Rupert Murdoch type on the verge of a run for the United States Senate. Written in secret by a longtime associate of Wolfe’s, the book is a career-ending revelation of scandal, corruption and murder—“Ruining ruinable lives, for profit and politics,” as Pavone writes. As copies of the manuscript filter out into the open, bullets start flying, and soon, Isabel is on the run in Manhattan during a vicious, complex thriller that plays out over the course of one long, bad day.
“My intention with the book was always to put ordinary people into extraordinary situations,” Pavone says. “I think there is a remarkable amount of fiction that is about incredible, superheroic people doing these amazing things that strain credulity to the point where I don’t want to read them. My books are about people who could be your neighbors who suddenly find themselves in these incredible situations.”
The Accident is most definitely not a sequel to The Ex-Pats, although fans of Pavone’s debut will note the reappearance of mercenary agent Hayden Gray, as well as protagonist Kate Moore in a minor supporting role. Pavone, who worked in publishing for more than 20 years, including as an editor at Clarkson Potter specializing in cookbooks, thinks of these stories as independent adventures set in a larger world.
“I was awe-struck by the interconnected world created in the five seasons of The Wire,” he says. “I thought that was a tremendously new and great way of storytelling that involved the same world but took time to examine completely different aspects of that world. When I was thinking about what to do next, I had that sort of thing in mind. I wanted to connect the stories and the characters in some way without it being a necessary progression from one to the other. No prequels, sequels or series.”
For this being only a sophomore novel, Pavone has set a lot of hurdles for himself. In addition to setting his story over the course of a single day, he also has to maneuver the mechanics of being a fugitive, not to mention another character who fakes his death and steals an extraordinary amount of money. Without giving anything away, we can tell you that whether you think you have it figured out in Chapter 2 or Chapter 42, you’re wrong.
That’s quite the accomplishment for a writer who never read much crime fiction and names Donna Tartt’s elegiac novel The Goldfinch as his favorite recently published book. Pavone says that the mechanics of deception and betrayal come more from the imagination than they do from research.
“The heavy lifting really comes from thinking about putting myself in a given situation and figuring out what I would do myself. It’s about figuring out what steps to take to get something done and to imagine what might go wrong,” he says. “I also think there’s something very compelling about condensing a story down to just 24 hours. Of course, there are a lot of flashbacks and back story in The Accident, but having everything that you need to know unfold in the consciousnesses of these characters in one day is still absorbing. It frees you up from having to compose a long-term arc in order to get all these stories down. In a way, it requires a lot of discipline, but it also allows the story to be simpler and more compelling.”
I had to ask whether some of the more outlandish characters are drawn from real life. In The Accident, there’s a portentous Hollywood film producer that strongly resembles an Academy Award–winning studio executive and a sexpot fame-seeker with a stolen copy of the novel, not to mention the aforementioned media conglomerate owned by Charlie Wolfe.
“The minor characters in The Accident are a large part of the fun,” he admits. “Those are the people who can be killed without me caring too much, which is freeing in a way.” Pavone also wants those characters to be fun to laugh at. “It’s a way to break up any kind of ponderousness that might creep into the book—with some characters who are clearly not ponderous archetypes. Sure, they may be vaguely recognizable to readers, but it’s more important to make the book a little bit fun.”
Pavone says he’s left himself room to revisit both The Ex-Pats and The Accident in the future if he so wishes, leaving fans hungering for more of the author’s dangerous, delicate stories. “The Ex-Pats was fundamentally about marriage,” he reflects. “For this new novel, I started with this premise of an anonymous manuscript that is extraordinarily dangerous. To me, the underlying theme of The Accident is ambition and what people are willing to sacrifice for their goals. I think that’s a much more universal idea.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colo.