Philip Kerr, Prayer. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.
I have written on Kerr in the past, chiefly focused on his Bernie Gunther character, though I’ve read a few of his other works as well. Prayer is unlike any other text I’ve read of his writings, and I’m uncertain still as to whether this is a good thing or not. As I worked my way through the novel, I commented to a friend that I found the book creepy and more than a little frightening at times. In the end, I lean more on the idea that the story is a bit messy, the main character thoroughly unlikeable, and some of the resolutions left me wondering – is it over? Was it real? What was real?
FBI agent Gil Martins is a Scottish immigrant who spent formative teenaged years in Boston, MA, worked as a lawyer, and quit in the post 9-11 malaise to become an agent for the Federal Bureau. He’s on the backside of a failing marriage, drinks too much, and has lost his faith in God, if not also humanity. When the story opens up, we learn that Martins, raised Catholic in divided Glasgow, has converted to evangelical Christian but is really more of a burgeoning, if not fully committed, atheist. The personal religious struggles of Martins are somewhat interesting, but as other reviewers have noted, Kerr has not created the most sympathetic protagonist. Martins, as written, simply cannot pull off the sardonic, self-aware witticisms that come so easily to Kerr’s Bernie Gunther.
Perhaps this is unfair – making comparisons between the creations of an author, but arguably it is also the fate of a writer who largely works in the serial of the Gunther cosmology (or at least as done so for roughly ten years). Despite what I perceive as a misstep in character design, there are elements of the story that certainly worked to keep me intrigued.
Ultimately however, I ended up disappointed in the novel. I am still unclear, five days or so removed from finishing, exactly how the string of murders that were under investigation by Martins are resolved, or perhaps they aren’t? I wrote earlier that the book was both creepy and frightening. I will stand by that judgement and it is in this particular element that I see success in Kerr’s writing. He effectively creates an unsure, unsafe, and bizarre environment with a touch of the paranormal. My personal problem was, I did not care what happened to Martins, I was not certain I cared about the main antagonists, and I found the seeming abandonment of some characters, like Martins’ FBI partner, odd.
Does Martins, and Kerr by proxy, ask some interesting questions about the nature of God and prayer in general? Perhaps, but I still found that in spots, the story was “flabby.” Prayer is worth investigating, but if you leave off halfway through the novena? I won’t judge.