Scott Mariani's The Alchemist's Secret bills itself as "a lightning-paced treasure hunt thriller which will ensnare fans of Dan Brown, Kate Mosse and the Bourne series". True, it's a bit formulaic, with its retired SAS fighter who has a guilty secret and emotional stunting. Then there's the mysterious multi-millionaire who hires him. The attractive female scientist who is scorned by her peers. And the ancient elixir that could save a young girl's life.
Ben Hope earns his living as a soldier of fortune who rescues kidnapped children. He's trying to make amends for the fact that his little sister was snatched while he was supposed to be looking after her many years earlier. Personally I blame the parents who left a child in the care of a 16-year-old boy while they were staying in Morocco, but that would spoil the plot.
He is employed by a very rich man to track down an ancient secret of how to make an alchemical potion that might just save the life of the man's grand-daughter, who is dying of a rare form of cancer. Hope is reluctant to take the job until he learns that the girl is called Ruth, which just happens to be his missing sister's name.
Within a very short time, in true thriller fashion, he finds he is being shot at, attacked in dark alleys, trapped in a locked car on a level crossing with a high-speed train approaching, and various other risky situations. In between all that he meets modern-day alchemist Dr Roberta Ryder who has her own reasons for tracking down the secret of immortality.
It's a complex trail that leads across France and Italy and teaches you a lot about alchemy and the history of the Cathars, a 12th century religious group who fell foul of Pope Innocent III and were all but wiped out in the vicious persecution that followed. Victims were flayed, blinded, dragged behind horses, mutilated, burned alive and otherwise executed for their beliefs. In one attack a monk asked how to tell the difference between Cathars and Catholics, and was told "kill them all, the Lord will recognise his own".
The violence of the period is echoed in the book by the presence of a character who revels in the nick-name of The Inquisitor, and goes beyond even the tortures inflicted on the original Cathars. The book has an impressive body count on all sides of the treasure hunt, and killed in some impressive ways. It's a bit gory, but doesn't actually stray into the realms of gross. (Unless you have a very vivid imagination.)
I can't tell you how it ends without spoiling some great plot twists. I did see a couple of them coming, but it didn't spoil things too much. Apparently Ben Hope also features in a follow-up novel The Nemesis Program, and I'm considering tracking it down. So that says a lot.
The only problem I have is that booksontheunderground expects me to return this to the tube for someone else to read. I'm not sure when I'll be back in London, so I now have my own mystery to solve. How can I get it there?