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by Philip Kerr
Putnam, May 2014
432 pages
ISBN: 039916765X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

FBI Special Agent Gil Martins specializes in trying to thwart domestic terrorists and has learned that a majority of them are motivated by a religious conviction bordering on the obsessive. Of course, agent Martins is a trifle obsessive himself, unable to leave a table unstraightened or his hands unsanitized. Though he was born in Glasgow, his family emigrated to Boston when he was still a boy and he embraced his new country with enthusiasm. Now he finds himself in Houston, where a serial killer dubbed "St Peter" appears to be targeting public benefactors, those well known for their good works.

Though evidently an excellent and effective G-man, Gil is at a dangerously rocky point in his life. He has just found out that a man whose confession to murder he elicited through dodgy interrogation techniques was in fact innocent. Unfortunately, the discovery was made a few weeks after he was executed. Gil cannot excuse himself for the part he played in the man's conviction and, from believing that he was doing God's work as a law enforcement officer, he is beginning to doubt the existence of God altogether. He is, it goes without saying, reading Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the sly. When his wife, a member of one of those mega-churches that dot the US landscape, finds out, it is as though she has discovered he is addicted to the worst sort of violent porn. She kicks him out of the house.

But worse, much worse, is yet to come. Martins becomes convinced it is no coincidence that a string of prominent people who have taken up the cause of atheism in the public arena are dying in strange and sudden ways. When he is given some evidence that the pastor of yet another mega church, the marvellously-named Izrael Church of Good Men and Good Women, may be responsible for them through some unclear agency, he resolves to find out the truth. Not a good idea. Whatever else may be said of Pastor Nelson Van der Velden, he is a man of considerable resource.

Martins' life spirals rapidly downward until, fetching up in Galveston, Texas, he confronts a terrifying series of apparitions and menaces. He is convinced that God himself is out to get him for his loss of faith. We are here very definitely in Exorcist territory and what exactly to make of it must be left up to the individual reader.

If that reader has picked up PRAYER, Kerr's first standalone in a number of years, hoping for another noir thriller like the superb Bernie Gunther series, disappointment may be in store. Curiously, Kerr seems more at home in Germany during the Second World War than in Texas in the present century. Part of the trouble lies in the dialogue. His characters, no matter their occupation or class, rely heavily on a single familiar four-letter word. While it is probably true that American speech is particularly larded with variations on that expletive, it is far more flexible and inventive that Kerr gives credit to. Like Mark Twain's wife Livy, he gets the words right, but not the tune.

Another difficulty is that the metaphysical horror that oppresses Martins is not all that scary as these things go. His visions or hallucinations, whichever they are, might work better in film than in print, where the visual impact would be more direct and the soundtrack usefully creepy.

All the same, PRAYER, though uneven, certainly has its rewards. The fundamental theory on which it is based, that the God of Judaeo-Christian scripture is pretty unpleasant much of the time, must come as little surprise to anyone other than someone like Martins, whose primary religious experience has been at an upbeat mega church. Still, even a quick glance at the news of late reveals a litany of horrors committed in the name of religion and it must be admitted that no religion has a monopoly on any of them. By reminding Christians of the darker implications of the founding texts of their beliefs as well as remarking on the closeness between zealotry and madness, Kerr's metaphysical horror tale has a distinctly queasy relevance.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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