Prayer by Philip Kerr – review

Philip Kerr's Bible-thumping thriller is let down by an unsympathetic hero, bad dialogue and even worse sex

The premise of Prayer, Philip Kerr's first standalone novel in a decade, is tantalisingly creepy. A series of high-profile atheists have died in mysterious ways, and FBI agent Gil Martins is moved to investigate when he hears a startling confession from a frightened woman: she says they were killed by prayer. Initially sceptical – he's a Catholic turned evangelical Christian turned atheist himself – Martins is soon dragged into a world peopled by menacingly charismatic pastors, avenging angels of death and dark, angry gods.

Kerr was one of Granta's best of young British novelists in 1993. He has won prizes for his writing in the past, but he's unlikely to scoop any gongs for Prayer, unless it's the Bad Sex award (more on which later).

This is a baffling novel, an uncomfortable mishmash of horror and serial-killer thriller which doesn't quite manage to succeed as either. It's narrated by Martins, who starts off as an intriguing companion, struggling with the loss of his faith (his wife kicks him out for his secret stash of Dawkins and Hitchens), and with burgeoning OCD. But his voice – and personality – quickly chafe, from his attitude to women (he looks at a colleague's underwear when she climbs a tree, and refers to a woman's "great badonkadonk"), to his pettiness (questioning a witness whose cheating husband has just died, he decides to "pay her back for jerking my collar so violently earlier on", and brings up the affair).

As Martins stumbles his way towards the truth – via handily discovered secret journals and video diaries – he ends up at an evangelical church with a huge congregation and a powerful leader, who doesn't take kindly to his investigations. And, amid chatter about ancient texts and "nothing less than the secrets that God revealed to Adam", Martins is, eventually, threatened himself, feels stalked by something implacable and ancient, and wonders if he is cracking up entirely.

Giving Kerr his due, once he gets going, towards the end of the novel, he is capable of summoning up a genuinely scary atmosphere and a satisfyingly malign presence. But this doesn't rescue Prayer. The dialogue is clumsy; his first-person narrator even addresses himself aloud, at one point: "'It's not that you're any better than a lot of other bastards in the Bureau, Martins,' I said… 'it just takes a while longer for you to give up on something.'"

The story is too slow-moving; a sermon lasts for almost four pages. And then there's that sex scene, in which Martins describes himself, unerotically, as "one who had almost forgotten what it was like to cleave unto a woman". Pants become "delicate shackles", there is talk of "the most intimate flesh", and an "impudent tongue", and – bearing in mind that all this sex is taking place as the characters face an impossible horror – speculation that "a shrink might have suggested I was trying to hide myself inside her in some Oedipal way". Bring on the shortlists for the Bad Sex award: this must be a leading contender.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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