The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani
Occasionally I read a mindless thriller, something a bit Dan Brown, just to remind myself that I’m not really the target audience for such stuff, although secretly I do enjoy them – a little! My teenage reading diet was absolutely full of thrillers – Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and later Colin Forbes, Frederick Forsyth et al – I loved them all, and many of these were well written taut books that got on with things with little padding. I was offered a copy of The Nemesis Program – the latest in a long series by British thriller writer Scott Mariani, and based upon one word in the blurb, thought ‘Why not.’
That word was ‘Tesla‘. The Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla was a genius – he pioneered AC electricity, but Edison pushed him out of the way with his inferior DC current. He let go of his ideas for radio telephony and Marconi leapt at it. No wonder he got disillusioned and turned his mind to more controversial ideas – like the Tesla Oscillator a steam-powered electricity generator which could be tuned to resonate and with which he allegedly caused earth tremors in his building in New York, having to smash the device to stop a potential disaster. The Mythbusters TV team have determined that although you can set up a decent amount of resonance with such a device, you can’t amplify it to make an earthquake. But hey! – it’s perfect for a schlocky thriller as the weapon of choice for a mad scientist.
Ben Hope is ex-SAS, now a theologian, and about to get married to his girlfriend Brooke, when an old flame, Roberta Ryder turns up at his door in a Cotswold village in a mad panic – someone is after her. Roberta, an American in Ottawa, had received a coded letter from a friend in Paris, but by the time she reached Claudine – she had been murdered. The police think it was the work of a serial killer they’re tabbing Le Bricoleur because he used DIY implements to murder his victims. Roberta, however, knows a little of what Claudine was working on – a modern version of Tesla’s Oscillator, and sure enough she thinks she was followed in Paris, but she managed to evade them (she thinks) and headed for Ben – he’d know what to do.
Ben, three days away from his wedding thinks it is all a bit mad, but takes Roberta off to have a talk much to Brooke’s disgust, and then guys with guns arrive and he realises it’s real. He is duty-bound to help a damsel in distress, so after seeing off the would-be attackers, he postpones the marriage - Brooke tells him it’s over, and he and Roberta return to Paris thanks to Hope’s sister’s airplane that just happens to have landed at a nearby airfield bringing her to the wedding.
Already that’s one convenience too far isn’t it? The action continues from Paris to Lapland to Indonesia using the plane, always with the baddies following behind. The body count is high – there’s more excess than in any James Bond novel, and without the humour – it’s non-stop action. Hope, of course, always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, as in the quote below, a high-speed car chase in which he’s just driven over the edge of a raised section of the Périphérique …
For just a second or two, it was like floating. Ben experienced a strange sensation of weightlessness that was somehow liberating and not unpleasant. [...] Then reality cut back in with terrifying speed as the Mercedes dropped like a missile towards the road below and the traffic lumbering in and out of the Port de Sèvres. Ben caught a glimpse of a huge articulated truck coming the other way and he was utterly convinced they were going to plummet right into its path and be smashed and rolled and twisted into tiny pieces all across the tarmac. But then the bone-jolting impact as the taxi’s spinning wheels touched down on the truck’s roof told him that death wasn’t going to be quite so instant. [...] An inch difference in its trajectory and the car and its occupants would have been mangled against a steel rubbish skip.
It’s always an inch that saves Ben Hope every time.
Some of the dialogue is so cheesy too. When Hope finally encounters the criminal mastermind behind the Nemesis Program, it’s shortly after he’s dispatched another of his men…
‘…You’ve cost the project a great deal of resources and robbed me of several of my most capable agents. Men not easily killed. Yet you dealt with them with almost embarrassing ease.’ His lips wrinkled into a smile.
‘You mean McGrath?’ Ben said. ‘I’m afraid he went all to pieces.’
‘So it would seem. And now it appears you’ve disposed of Mr Lund just as efficiently, albeit without as much mess.’ The old man shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’ll replace him. It’s so hard to find personnel of calibre these days.’
‘Have you tried Scumbags R Us?’ Ben said. ‘I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.’
It was going so well in a sub-Bond way until Ben’s last reply…
Roberta as his girl-Friday is tough but subservient as all Bond girls are, but Hope is made of strong stuff and doesn’t bed her (she’d have been willing though). So this is a sexless thriller – rather an oddity in this day and age – even Jack Reacher finds a girl in every town. Also, Hope comes across as a soldier through and through – he knows what to do in an emergency – he’s rarely a fish out of water which makes him predictable and more than a bit boring.
At 431 pages, it took too long to read – under 300 would have improved it and sustained the tension better – it felt too episodic in the transitions. The bits of explanatory techno-babble are obvious and jar too, for babble they are. The thing about Bond villains and their weapons of mass destruction is that they’re pure fantasy, and the story is told with wit which makes it fun. Here we had a fantasy weapon, a villain who wasn’t involved enough until the later stages, and very little humour to leaven the gore.
These books are extremely popular though – this was actually Ben Hope’s tenth outing. Would I read another? Well – if I was on holiday and the airline had lost the bag with my books in and one of these was on the shelf – of course I would. But that’s an unlikely scenario. Fans will devour this instalment, I’ll go and read something else. (5/10)
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The Nemesis Program (Ben Hope)by Scott Mariani – pub Avon, June 2014, paperback original, 431 pages.