A review of Philip Kerr’s “Prayer.”

Philip Kerr is an established thriller writer, probably best known currently for his Bernie Gunther crime thrillers.  However, he has also written science fiction thrillers, for example ‘Gridiron,’ about a homicidal AI skyscraper, and ‘The Second Angel,’ a bank heist on the moon.  ‘Prayer’ belongs more in this fantastic fiction category, being a supernatural thriller exploring the use of prayer, no less, as a lethal weapon.

Special Agent Gil Martins is assigned to a domestic terrorism unit in Houston.  As such, he witnesses terrible crimes that lead him to question his Christian faith, based on his Catholic upbringing, and developed by his marriage to an evangelical Christian.

He begins to read atheist literature, and his wife’s discovery of his ‘atheist porn’ precipitates a disintegration of the marriage.  Meanwhile, his attention is brought to the weird deaths of a number of vocal and prominent atheists, whereby a mental breakdown is followed by a sudden, shocking demise.  One common factor is that they all died in the grip of unimaginable terror.  Then, someone is arrested and confesses to the killings, only they claim that the murder weapon was prayer…

This is an effective page turner.  The author knows how to hook the reader into a developing mystery, and builds an atmosphere of mounting dread.  The dialogue is snappy, and the pace of the narrative moves events along at an exciting gallop.  The central mystery is also intriguing enough to hook you.  What has scared these people to death?  Is it an Angel of Death summoned by prayer, or is there a rational explanation, a ‘Scooby Doo’ type unmasking?  “Mr Janitor!  So you were the Angel of Death!”  “Yes, and I would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for you pesky kids…”

At this point, I don’t want to write a complete spoiler.  Suffice to say, events do not lead to a cop-out.  The rational word does not explain all at the end, a mattress to break the fall.  But you’ll need to read the book to discover the full nature of the threat.

The question, fundamental to the success of the whole venture, is how successfully the central conceit wins your imaginative buy-in.  Wherever you are on the belief spectrum, does the book give an imaginary structure in which you can believe even if just for the duration of the story?  For example, I can enjoy a super-hero story without really believing people can fly.

For me, in this case, the answer would be no.  It is just too much of a stretch, lacking imaginative integrity.  Anything fuelled by anger and jealousy does not create and sustain, it is self-defeating.  Matters are made worse by a smattering of Biblical quotes in an ‘Authors note’ at the end where Philip Kerr seems to say “You see! It’s all there!”  Well, it’s not.

Kudos to not copping out, and skilfully building a mood of mounting terror and dread, delivering a pacey, imaginative read.  But the reveal is deeply unsatisfactory, for delivering something that just does not work.

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