A REVIEWER should always try to make at least one positive comment about a book.
So I will start by saying that there is an excellent scene in Prayer by Philip Kerr where the Angel of Death chases the protagonist across Texas writing 'Surrender Dorothy' style warnings in a car's rear window. It did raise the hairs on my neck a little, so for a horror-thriller-crime novel mash-up, it worked.
In fact, it is a scene made for the movies - and therein lies the major problem for this book. It is at best an extended film pitch for a clunking Hollywood movie starring the one-note Gerald Butler.
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I haven't read thrillers, horror novels, or the more samey of current crime fiction for many years. I used to devour Dennis Wheatley, Frederick Forsyth and Thomas Harris in my teens though and Prayer seemed to be somewhere on the Wheatley-Forsyth-Harris continuum. There was a good chance I'd like this, then - in a romping, nostagalic, this-is-like-being-a-kid-again kind of way, I thought.
I'm afraid the problem is that the likes of Wheatley, Forsyth and Harris are masters of plot. When their writing goes a little wonky then character, suspense, jeopardy and brilliantly realised grand guignol violence always make up the deficit. Not so with Kerr.
First, the plotting is a mess. Here's the story in a nutshell: a Roman Catholic boy from Glasgow emigrates to America as a teen, joins the FBI, loses his faith, uncovers a plot in which the Angel of Death - yes, the one who killed the first born of Egypt - is being incited by the power of evangelist prayer to kill leading atheists.
For a thriller the plot takes far too long to get going. Harris would have had the Angel of Death leaping around the country from page 50. In Prayer, the pointless longueurs about the FBI are soporific. Worse though, is the deus ex machina denouement: which comes in the shape of a comedy Glasgow ghost - the hero's 'mad uncle Bill'. At times, the plot was so absurd that I was sure I was reading pastiche. Kerr makes Dan Brown look like Dante.
The novelist obviously thought he had something important to say about modern times, but it died in a morass of cliche. If there is an ideological heart to the book it is that God is a monster. Is that really a lesson in the Godless 21st century? Anyone who has read no further in the Bible than the Book of Genesis can tell you that.
For a writer obviously motivated solely by plot, Kerr is all over the place. The hero - called Gil Martins in a nod to James Hogg's Justified Sinner, which has already been masterfully nodded to by James Robertson in Gideon Mack, and doesn't need another nod - is one moment distraught at the collapse of his marriage, the next cavorting in a brilliantly 'bad sex award' one night stand as the Angel of Death perches at the door listening. I don't know about you but casual sex while I am waiting to be dragged to hell?
So if plot and character are more than a little sloppy, what about dialogue? Expository, repetitive, phoney. The writing is grating. A ringing phone is described as sounding "as if an earthquake was in progress". A voice is described: "A little breathy but sexy and English with a hint of American, like whisky with a splash of ginger ale, the way my mom and dad always drank it".
I also felt uncomfortable with the strange take on Scotland that ran thinly through the book. Kerr was born in Edinburgh and now lives in Wimbledon, and you get the impression he has a contempt for his homeland.
This, of course, is no bad thing and could be interesting if we got a glimpse of motivation - but we don't.
Certainly, the first person narrator seems to hate his country; that too would also be a perfectly fine trait for a character to have, but again it's never explained why the hero sees his land in weak stereotypes of drunks and tartan. One gets the feeling that this kind of caricature is considered easily digestible for English and American readers. Not too taxing on the brain. Comfortably dumb.
That this book is getting such a huge publicity push says more about the state of British publishing than anything else: it is fixated on the easy read, the cheap read, the film pitch read.
Here's a free tip: the novel unapologetically loots the wonderful Edwardian English ghost stories of M R James - particuarly Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad, and Casting the Runes.
Do yourself a favour and dig out these tales if you want truly elegant sparse terror and beautiful haunting writing that will keep you awake at night.