The Alchemist’s Secret – by Scott Mariani

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If the novels of Dan Brown and Lee Child were laid out on an autopsy table and forensically dissected and analysed, then put back together again by a decent literary technician, this is pretty much what you would expect to get as the end result.

Hence an obvious Jack Reacher-inspired hero is parachuted into a story that seems cookie-cutter produced from Brown’s best known works: secretive millionaires, secret extremist religious group, a homicidal fanatic, and a trail of clues from history leading to one of the best known hidden secrets of all time – in this case, the alchemists’ Holy Grail of eternal life and how to change base metal into gold, rather than the Holy Grail itself. The book pads out the rest of its pages with plot and style drawn from films, so that the central relationship between the hero and a female scientist is inspired straight from those rom-coms where the pair hate each other on sight but predictably fall into each others’ arms in the final reel. The good guy is unequivocally heroic (he has a vague drink problem, but that’s forgiven by being the result of a childhood tragedy) and the bad guys blacker than black. Interestingly it seems the good guys drive Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots in the French-set story, while the bad guys all drive German cars – it’s not exactly subtle.

Its lack of ambition for any originality is really rather depressing: it’s the literary equivalent of popcorn, an impressive amount of volume but almost no calorific content, a meal that’s forgotten almost before you’ve finished eating it. At least the prose is an improvement of Dan Brown’s execrable tomes (although it simultaneously also shows up just deceptively well told and nuanced Lee Child’s best-sellers are.) It manages to be be perfectly readable, retaining Brown’s annoying readability strategy of continual “just one more chapter” cliffhangers and proceeding at a fair clip. The language is kept very simple, the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters are all very short – it’s writing for people who don’t generally read or have attention deficit problems, and has something of the air of a ‘young adult’ series (something that’s actually been planned by the publishers, apparently.)

Still it’s a perfectly fine holiday beach book – something that’ll be diverting enough while your brain is on auto-pilot. It’s also ideal to read on an e-reader like a Kindle or an iPad. The historical background of alchemy and its relationship with first the Catholic church and later the Nazis is interesting in its own right. However, the book’s smugness on its level of research is undermined by some mistakes in some of the incidental modern day background about cars, and later by some odd mishandling of timings that makes no sense and should have been picked up by the editors.

Overall, there’s enough untapped potential in both the lead character and the author to make me interested in revisiting later books in the series (there are now six – five of them in two and a half years). If the series can shake off its slavish adherence to pastiching existing best-sellers and find its own groove, language and direction then there’s certainly enough promise of talent to make it work.

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