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Bella Swan, the heroine in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, drew criticism for her passivity, for letting all her battles be fought by men – vampire men who’d spend the night creepily watching her sleep. Perhaps Meyer took note, because the protagonist in her new novel, adult thriller The Chemist, is a very different proposition.
Living life under various pseudonyms – but mostly known in the period we meet her as Alex – she’s a medic and an interrogator who worked for a shadowy branch of the US government torturing terrorists before her bosses turned on her. Now she is a fugitive. Having already seen off three would-be assassins from the agency, she sleeps wearing a gas mask in whichever nondescript room she’s renting, various deadly chemical compounds rigged up to go off if anyone breaks in. (No night-time vampire observers allowed here; “someone would come for her, and instead of a victim he would find a predator. A brown recluse spider, invisible behind her gossamer trap.”)
Known as the Chemist, because she used to squeeze the truth out of her suspects with excruciatingly painful drug concoctions, she was brilliant at her job, “batting a thousand”, she’s told at one point, with a perfect record. “I am the bogeyman in a very dark and scary world,” she says. “I frighten people who aren’t afraid of anything else, not even death. I can take everything they pride themselves on away from them; I can make them betray everything they hold sacred. I am the monster they see in their nightmares.”
In a charming touch, we meet her in a library, where she’s reading spy novels for ideas to keep her safe from her former employers. She doesn’t know why they want her dead, but she’s getting tired of running, and when she reads an email asking her to take on one last job for the agency, because “many, many lives” are on the line, she hopes her days as a fugitive might be at an end. At least, she hopes, she’ll be able to find out what they have on her. But as Alex delves deeper into the case – it involves biological warfare, and she’s able to rig up a few scenarios where her own particularly dark talents are made use of – she finds that nothing is as it seems, and that the corruption goes right to the highest levels.
The Chemist is not Meyer’s first adult novel – that was The Host, a story of alien invasion. There are no traces of the supernatural here, unless you count the preternaturally intelligent German shepherd that saves the day on more than one occasion. Rather, Meyer, clearly a major fan of the genre, has dreamed up a fast-paced thriller, and a tough, mysterious heroine with a penchant for decking herself out in dangerous jewellery, concealing syringes of poison in her belt and switchblades in her shoes. There are some fabulous pitched battles leading up to a conclusion that it’s easy to imagine in the cinema – the only major duff point is the love-at-first-sight romance to which Alex is subjected, which fails to ring true for a number of reasons, not least its opening act of torture. Still, at least it beats Bella mooning over Edward.
The Chemist is published by Sphere (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40
Source: The Guardian
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