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Johan Thoms: The Man Responsible for More Deaths Than Hitler and Stalin Combined

09/24/2013 05:52 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

Exaggeration is naturally ocurring in the DNA of the cadaver known as the tale.

That's why we love stories.

And great raconteurs.

And so it was that a brilliantly gifted storyteller happened my way recently and recounted the chronicle of one man who made a wrong turn and in doing so set off a chain of events that triggered World War One, and by extension the second World War as well.

The man I met was author Ian Thornton, and the story he tells is outlined in his thoroughly entertaining and provocative first novel entitled The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire and head of one of the most powerful families in Europe at the time, is on a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia, one of the provinces of the empire. The aforementioned title character of the novel, Johan Thoms, is assigned the task of being Franz Ferdinand's chaffeur during his visit.

Thoms is young, educated, well mannered and has a great future ahead of him. But on that fateful afternoon, Thoms gets slightly disoriented and takes a wrong turn. He winds up on a cul-de-sac and can't get the car into reverse. Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serbian nationalist group called "The Black Hand" was drinking a coffee in a cafe on the same street. Earlier in the day he had lost his nerve and abandoned an attempt to assasinate the Archduke. But with the wrong turn, the assassin came face to face with his prey. And, as history records, Princip took his second chance with no mistake and the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in a car on the backstreets of Sarajevo led to a chain of events that started the First World War.

The chaffeur spent the rest of his life second guessing his actions, guilt-ridden by his mistake. The temporary suspension of disbelief suggests that if a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale, the reader will suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Most great chronicles of human experience are wrapped around historical fact.

What Thornton manages to do is take one tiny player in a monumental event and focus in on Johan Thoms with the careful research of an historian and the deft touch and aplomb of a true literary artist.

The best part of Thornton's novel is his ability to take us inside the tortured mind of Johan Thoms.

The contrast between the inquisitive intellectual meanderings of the young Johan prior to the assassination and the pained existence of his life afterwards, is a metaphor for the changed values of all humankind as a result of global conflict

It is a theme common to us all. Not because any of us have started a war. But rather, what if I had done this, rather than that, how would my life, or the life of others, have changed?

Thornton himself readily admitted to me, "I guess too, in hindsight, there may have been some sub-conscious mirroring of events with those in my own life. I too had made some rather stupid decisions, and was running away from them. Maybe I empathized with this poor boy more than I realized at the time."

In the end, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is eminently readable, with great characters and thoughtful observations. It is well written and fluid. It allows us to wonder about decision making in our own lives and themes of destiny and coincidence. It doesn't claim to be historically perfect, but neither is it a distortion of the facts as they happened. And with the 100th anniversary of the Great War soon upon us, a book that should be top of the list for anyone with even a passing interest in discovering events and themes from that period of our history.