In Retro Review: The Suicide Exhibition–The Never War: Book One

A great premise that doesn't live up to expectations.

The Suicide Exhibition–The Never War: Book One by Justin Richards

Published by St. Martin’s Press, March 3, 2015 (Originally published by Del Rey in the United Kingdom in 2013). Hardcover of 342 pages at $25.99.

The cover: A man wearing black stands stands at a podium sporting the Nazi eagle. Behind him are three large red flags, two with swastikas and one with a odd spiral pattern. Above him, are several planes with three UFOs among them. This appears to be Nazi Germany and they are using alien spacecraft. This cover by created using images from It got my attention and had me picking it up to see what this book was about. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the inside front cover, “Wewelsburg Castle, 1940: The German war machine has awakened an ancient threat — the alien Vril and their Ubermensch have returned. Ultimate victory in the war for Europe is now within the Nazis’ grasp. England, 1941: Foreign Office trouble-shooter Guy Pentecross has stumbled into a conspiracy beyond his imagining — a secret war being waged in the shadows against a terrible enemy. He is soon plunged into a dangerous mystery that will change his life and could mean the end of the world. Obsessed with the occult, Hitler and other senior Nazis believed they were destined to inherit the Earth. They are determined to recover “their” ancient artifacts — the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Spear of Destiny. When Dunkirk veteran Major Pentecross uncovers the Nazi plot, he, together with pilot and American spy Sarah Diamond and SOE operative Leo Davenport, enter the shadow world of Section Z, a secret section of the British intelligence services that investigates the occult and supernatural. All three will have major roles to play as they uncover the Nazis’ insidious plot to use the Vril’s technology to win the war…at any cost. The battle for Europe has just become the war for humanity. And if the Nazis succeed in harnessing its power, there will be no chance of victory for Guy and his allies.” The cover got me to pick this book up, while this summary got me to purchase it. This is pushing all the right buttons for me: Nazis, aliens, the supernatural, and WWII. Including artifacts that Indiana Jones has gone after doesn’t hurt. This got me excited. Overall grade: A

The characters: Guy Pentecross starts the novel as a very dissatisfied man, having been forced out of military due to an injury and now employed by the Foreign Office. He knows several languages, which is a helpful trait in this book, and that’s what sets him out to discover Section Z. He’s very much a gentleman soldier, who wants to do no one any harm, but will use force when necessary. Once he’s a member of the secretive Section his life becomes the one of adventure he thought the war would bring him. Sarah Diamond doesn’t really do too much in this book. She’s given a healthy and entertaining background, including the skills of a pilot, but not much is done with her, other than to be chased by an aggressive antagonist in the book’s middle. She and Guy flirt, but he’s too polite to make a move, while she pines for him. Once the dust settles in this saga it seems obvious that will be romantically linked. The most entertaining protagonist is Leo Davenport. He enters the novel in terrific fashion in the second chapter and every chapter he appears in. He’s witty, has an unusual set of skills (though he’s not Liam, thank you), and is full of realistic surprises. Anytime he was in the story it was fantastic. I don’t want to spoil any aspect of him, suffice to say if he had been the sole protagonist the book might have been better. Section Z is run by Colonel Brinkman and the way he’s written reminded me immensely of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart from Doctor Who. He’s very no-nonsense, committed to his job, and is always under pressure to have his department perform. When I finished the novel and looked at writer Justin Richards’s credits, seeing that he’s written several Who novels made much sense. This resemblance to Nicholas Courtney’s iconic character neither helped nor hurt this novel, but it rang out every time the character appeared. The villains of the book are outstanding: Nazis and the Vril, aliens that have returned to Earth to claim it. I was really pleased by those at Wewelsburg Castle, as they are a collection of the most infamous Nazi leaders. What they are up to is fascinating and terrifying. I won’t state whom they are, but their names will not be forgotten by history. The Vril begin as an unseen threat, but after Chapter 20 they are entangled in the lives of the heroes and they are enthralling. Granted, Nazis and aliens make for good pulp villains, and that’s exactly the tone they, and the heroes, give off in this novel. This is supposed to be a thrilling adventure novel and that’s what they bring to this book. With the exception of underused Diamond, all are fun. Overall grade: B+

The settings: Richards neatly ties in historical events to the adventures the heroes undergo. Having the heroes go throughout England, seeing the damage done by the bombing, going to Germany to the infamous Nazi castle, and the final battle in the Africa desert were all expertly reconstructed. I have no doubt that Richards could write any historical novel set in this era and make it work. Overall grade: A+

The action: The action started very strong, but by the end of the novel felt like a repetitious video game. Chapter Two was a sensational action piece reminiscent of an Indiana Jones adventure. It fit the story perfectly and this genre was returned to several times. If a publisher ever returns to printing adventures for the famous archaeologist, Richards’s name should definitely be considered. There is a bit of spy work in London that’s outstanding and the action involving the Vril is the highpoint of the novel. It’s when smaller alien creatures enter the story that things become too pulpy, even for me. There’s a scene in a laboratory that came off as silly more so than thrilling, and the final battle in Africa was like a video game. I just didn’t care for these smaller creatures and their threat. Overall grade: C

The conclusion: There’s a very heavy hand in how the title of the novel relates to the action and there’s no conclusion. I went into this book knowing that there was a sequel, but I was hoping that things would have been tied up a bit more. Instead it has a “now the real war begins” conclusion. This was disappointing. Overall grade: C-

The final line: There’s enough in this to enjoy, but the action peters out as it goes along and there’s no wrap up of any kind. A reading of the sequel might change my opinion of this book, but on it’s own this was just a little better than average. A great premise that doesn’t live up to expectations. Overall grade: B-

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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