PHILIP KERR is best known for his Bernie Gunther series, now at nine books and counting. They are phenomenal, a riveting glimpse into the mass psychosis of Nazi Germany. Kerr’s novels span 1934-1954, from the prewar creep of the National Socialists to the post–World War II years, where party members try to hide from their pasts in far-flung outposts like Cuba and Argentina. The series’ first three books, sometimes compiled as Berlin Noir, set the tone as a perfect backdrop for Kerr f noir milieu. The Nazis are on the rise, infiltrating the police ranks, and crime against marginalized communities like the Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies abound. Most of these crimes come courtesy of the brown shirts, and as a result of their own Nazi sympathies the police are of little help. It’s the perfect world for a cynical private investigator, especially one like Gunther, who has lost his job as a policeman due to detesting the Nazis. The series also fuses fiction and history by having Gunther mix it up with real figures like Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and Stasi police chief, Erich Mielke.
Kerr’s latest novel, Prayer, is not a Gunther book. As I read Prayer, it took me a long time to shake not only the specter of Gunther, but also of Kerr’s command of the universe that Gunther inhabits. Prayer’s protagonist, Gil Martins, an FBI agent on the Domestic Terrorism Unit in Houston, Texas, is a Scottish transplant and a lapsed Catholic. His faith, or lack thereof, comes to the fore as he investigates a series of deaths, which leads him to question members of an evangelical Christian church. Once Martins comes into contact with the Izrael Church and its charismatic minister, Nelson Van Der Velden, the novel gets cooking, but Prayer starts very slowly, the plot moving in a methodical and cold way. Perhaps that’s a reflection of Martins’s character, but I couldn’t help comparing it to the Gunther novels, which move furiously, at times blindly, into the unknown.
Gunther is passionate, hard-nosed, and a fighter. He is a German through and through. He hates what has happened to Germany, but he still believes in his country and his heritage, and he’ll fight to reclaim it in any way he can. He is personally invested in his cases, and hispassion drips off the page, sucking you in as a reader. In contrast, Gil Martins feels like an outsider. When the book opens, he’s at a crossroads in his life. He’s a Scotsman living in Houston, a town he doesn’t particularly care for. He has lost his faith in Catholicism, which is tearing his marriage apart. His devout wife caning his marriage apart. roads in, and sends him packing. He’s displaced and observes the world dispassionately, an outsider passing judgment on America, and Texas, and the religious right. Early in the book, he attends church to placate his wife, but clearly his heart isn’t in it.
People were clapping their hands and touching their hearts and punching the air and shouting “eople wjah!ple were hey!ple were clapping th state lottery or sent a third man named Bush to the White House.
Everyone except me, that is. I sat down whenever I felt I could get away with it; and when I was standing, I was smiling a shit-eating grin every time one of my proclaiming neighbors met my shifty eyes.
Martins doesn’d really seem to understand the people he lives among. Likewise, Kerr’s portrait of Texas is not quite convincing; it seems a bit stereotypical.
More crucially, I never fully felt Martins’s internal struggle with his religious beliefs. Throughout the early part of the novel, we (and Martins) are constantly reminded by his colleagues that his newfound atheismmay be clouding and compromising his investigation, and that he is looking to pin these crimes on the religious right to prove a bigger point. His superior even pulls Martins off the case, saying, “Look, Gil. I’m not a shrink, but it seems to me that a lot of what you said just now […] follows on from your wife’s leaving home because you stopped believing in God and going to church. Aren’t you becoming a little bit obsessed with trying to prove that God’s the bastard, here?” His co-workers and his wife seem more concerned by hislack of faith than he does. In fact, Martin seems on the money when he defends himself by saying, “Half the terrorism in this country is done in the name of God, or Jesus, or the prophet Muhammad […] so if I seem a tad obsessed with God, maybe it’s because so many of our customers are, too.”
Prayer is very much a novel about faith and our connection to God, but it doesn’t hit you in the heart. I couldn’t help comparing it to another book I recently read, Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, a book that intensely explores the meaning of faith and belief. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew whose artistic pursuits bring him into conflict with his family, his community, his religion, and his faith. A gifted painter, who has to follow his artistic muse, exploring and painting a universe that is profane and offensive to his people, Lev constantly struggles to pursue his own path in the face of a community that questions and is hostile to his every move. His pain and his struggle to reconcile what is in his heart with what his community and his religion expect of him burn brightly throughout the book. As a result, Asher Lev is an incredible read. Through most of Prayer, although we are told repeatedly about Martins’s struggle with faith, we never really feel it, and the book suffers.
In the final third though, once Martins narrows his focus on the Izrael Church, the novel takes off in an amazing and unexpected way. Having progressed as a standard-issue crime procedural, it ratchets up into a supernatural horror story. Things get personal for Martins, and we really sense the depth of his religious struggle. His dispassionate worldview is shed as Martins’s belief in God gets called into question in a very real way. His faltering faith becomes the incredibly frightening and satisfying driving force of the book while he does battle with the Church. As his personal and professional lives deteriorate, Martins goes rogue with his investigation and takes refuge in Galveston, which resembles a ghost town courtesy of a recent hurricane. Galveston, however, is not the refuge he hopes for; he is attacked, presumably by members of the Church, in an attempt to dissuade him from continuing his investigation.
Holed up in a house in a deserted town, under siege from figures unknown, Martins jokes that his gothic situation is akin to The Amityville Horror, and Kerr himself has referenced The Exorcist as inspiration. Prayer moves at a dizzying pace as we approach the endgame, becoming suspenseful, energizing, and thought provoking. Thereng.l, energizing, and we approach the endgamen a cover-up? Martinsgs destruction gun-toting Church members, or has the Church found a way to weaponize prayer?
Prayer is full of ruminations about religion, faith, and the power of prayer, and the book ultimately examines the nature of God. If there is a God, is he merciful and full of love, or is he a savage God, full of anger and vengeance? The final scenes don final scenes ortackling all of these issues head on, and they shift the religious conversation in a bold and challenging way.
I’ll admit that at times I lost faith in Kerr on this American journey. Maybe I was too busy comparing this trip to the German journeys he’s taken me on in the Gunther books. Ultimately, though, Kerr is a great writer, and Prayer pays off. Sometimes you just have to have faith.