With no small dose of irony involved, I took it on blind faith that I’d enjoy a Philip Kerr thriller, regardless pretty much of the subject matter, so I came to Prayer without a clear idea of what I’d started reading. (A quirky aspect to Kindle-reading: you don’t see the cover blurb every time you pause reading). At first it seemed Kerr had written an FBI serial-killer thriller. Then Prayer went through a Dan Brown global conspiracy phase. Then the tone changed to a supernatural stalking, or possibly a psychotic meltdown as part of a midlife crisis following a loss of faith.
Prayer is all of the above, and more. It struggles somewhat to pull all of these aspects together into a coherent theme, however, and some parts are outright clichéd and a little cringe-worthy.
At first the key character seems to be artfully drawn, a talented investigator, an intelligent man. Like so many of Kerr’s protagonists (yes, Bernie Gunther, I’m thinking of you), Gil Martin has problems with authority. He’s a wise-ass, confident in his own abilities and inclined towards confrontation with his superiors when he doesn’t respect them.
Already an estranged Catholic, Gil is losing his other beliefs too: in religion, in god, in his marriage, in the FBI. One of the many sub-texts to Prayer is an examination of how even educated modern people are at heart credulous, superstitious types who truly want to believe – something. Gil turns away from an orthodox church but he then invests the same fervour into other establishments, shoring up his psyche with a belief in the righteousness of the FBI, of his wife, and of his child.
The events in Prayer strip away Gil’s support structure – not just the love of his wife but also his dependence upon his own intellect and the importance of belonging to an organisation. When we meet him at the start of the story, Gil relishes being part of the machinery which keeps society safe. He bends rules but he also participates in the rituals; at home, at church, at the club. Gradually, all his connections are revealed as being faint and superficial, as something infinitely more important is revealed to him.
Alternatively (and it’s not entirely obvious from the way the narrative is presented) he might just be going bonkers, seeing patterns where there are none and allowing his personal life to shatter into fragments as his sanity unravels.
At times, Prayer was an absolute delight to read; I genuinely was never certain where the plot was going or how it would resolve. Kerr litters the narrative with arch observations throughout; perhaps the most poignant of which notes that Americans of previous generations used to look up at the night sky and see the possibilities of the Apollo missions, the moon and beyond. Now they see the glory of their god and rather less of man’s potential.
However, then there were sections which filled me with dismay – like the portrayal of Gil’s wife and his bizarrely sentimental letter to his son which seemed utterly out of place in the narrative. Also I found the ‘haunted woods’ sequence and ‘spooky house’ scenario just a little bit too BOO! movie for my tastes. What kind of FBI agent loses his gun like that? Prayer starts out as an interesting episode of CSI and then heads in an X-Files direction, which was intriguing and entertaining, but the degeneration into Evil Dead or The Exorcist was a step too far for me.
In the end, Prayer suggests that there’s something infinitely more frightening than faith, and that thing is certainty. A chilling proposition indeed… even if the book can’t seem to make up its mind exactly what it wants to be
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Prayer by Philip Kerr is available in various formats including hardback and ebook