article published on November 4, 2013.
It was a quality-of-life moment. I’d been sitting in a Wimbledon restaurant with Philip Kerr, trying to remember when we first met (it was several decades ago and we agreed that his publisher then was Random House). I’d remembered that the companionable and civilised Kerr used to do an accurate simulacra of Sean Connery’s voice, and he’d rung up various Random House people using his fellow Scot’s menacing brogue and threatening litigation over a book mentioning the original 007 — which caused some pants-wetting moments before the ‘you’ve been had’ revelation. But such youthful pranks seemed a long time ago (there was more grey in both our temples) as we strolled across a balmy early evening Wimbledon Common to the tent which housed the book festival.
I was to talk to Philip about his new novel from Quercus, Prayer. The audience clearly relished every word from the sardonic author of the wonderful Bernie Gunther Berlin-set novels, coolly anatomising everything from Scottish nationalism to religion (Philip doesn’t have much time for either, despite the title of his new book). But a significant moment for me happened on our stroll before the event. As we drew near the tent, which was rippling in the evening breeze, we had a quality-of-life discussion. Clearly Kerr (who lives in Wimbledon) has it; I extolled the value of living in Islington (proximity to West End book launches and other temptations). But Philip drew my attention to the exquisite Turner-esque Sunset visible behind the tent, and the softly glowing lights on the awning as dusk fell on the Common. ‘Look at that!’ he said to me! And, pointing up, continued ‘And we have a big sky here! Whereabouts in Central London can you look up and see the sky properly?’ I knew he had a point, and after a lively event (in which, unsurprisingly, he proved the truth of the description I’d given the Wimbledon Book Festival for their programme: ‘Philip Kerr is a great raconteur!’), my late evening stroll across the Common had me thinking… well, Wimbledon’s only 40 minutes from the West End… maybe I should start packing up my books…
God Doesn’t Like me
How easy is it for a serious novelist to address religion in a provocative fashion? Salman Rushdie found to his cost that there is little room for nuance in any literary discussion of Islam, but it’s unlikely that Kerr’s new book, Prayer, will raise many hackles, despite the fact that it engages with issues involving Christian belief in a far more incendiary fashion than Rushdie ever did with Islam. Two things may divide Kerr admirers: firstly, there is the fact that this is the author’s first stand-alone novel in a decade (with his Nazi-era sleuth Bernie Gunther hors de combat); and, secondly, for a book written by an atheist, Prayer has one of the most thoroughgoing discussions of religion and belief that one is likely to encounter in contemporary writing.
The protagonist is special agent Gil Martins, whose job is to investigate domestic terrorism for the Houston FBI. His once unshakeable Christian faith has been under severe strain, and he is on the point of abandoning it – principally because his job forces him to confront the bloodshed that a supposedly benign deity permits on a daily basis. His moral conflict, however, lies closer to home. He has bitter arguments with his wife Ruth, whose piety contrasts with his doubt. With his marriage disintegrating, Gil investigates a sequence of unexplained deaths that prove to have a pointed relevance to his own crisis of faith. A mentally disturbed woman informs him that the victims have all been killed by prayer. And evidence accrues that there are powerful figures on the Religious Right who may be involved with the death of prominent atheists (were Richard Dawkins American, he would be in the frame), and Gil may have to accept that he is up against a supernatural force.
It’s inevitable that some will lament the author’s move away from the World War II era, but Prayer is a high-concept novel tackled in unabashed fashion. When Graham Greene mentioned to his co-religionist Evelyn Waugh that his faith was faltering and he was no longer comfortable being called a Catholic novelist, the more devout Waugh quickly applied a three-line whip to push him back into line. Philip Kerr, thankfully, can address issues of faith and atheism without any fear of negative influence — unless the bean counters at his publishers persuade him to get back to the more commercial territory of his Bernie Gunther thrillers.
When you have been christened as the King of Icelandic Crime Fiction (Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is the Queen), a certain resting on the laurels might be considered permissible. But Arnaldur Indriđason is far too rigorous a writer for that, as the valedictory Strange Shores (translated in customarily impeccable fashion by Victoria Cribb) reminded me. As with Henning Mankell’s valedictory The Troubled Man, this is the last outing for the writer’s celebrated detective – in Indriđason’s case, the doughty Detective Erlendur. A young woman walks into Iceland’s frozen fjords and is never seen again. But she leaves a disturbing legacy involving betrayal and revenge. Several decades later, in the same region, Erlendur is hunting for both the missing woman and a long lost brother — the latter’s disappearance during a storm when they were children has left him with a bitter lifelong legacy. He is to find, as so often before, the most sobering of answers to his questions. And – still with the Scandinavians – it was time to read somebody who I often see when he visits this country, the quietly-spoken Arne Dahl. His The Blinded Man (2010), the first novel in his accomplished ‘Intercrime’ sequence, became essential reading for those who had been watching the TV crime show that bears his name. Dahl possesses the customary Scandinavian talent of bagging a slew of literary awards; he writes crime fiction of genuine authority with a sinewy, uncompromising structure. And now we have the second novel in the sequence, Bad Blood, which is built around a powerful serial killer narrative bringing (as in the earlier book) literary values to the crime genre with his strongly characterised, ill-matched team of detectives. Detective Paul Hjelm and his team receive a call from the FBI. A serial killer whose modus operandi appears to be that of a murderer thought to be long dead is en route to Sweden. Is the Kentucky killer still alive? And what is his agenda in Sweden?
Despite nagging from English-speaking novelists, I still maintain that (in terms of column inches) I write far more about British, Scottish and Irish writers than I do Scandinavians, covering such writer as the talented Jane Casey.
Shortlisted on two occasions for the Irish crime novel of the year award and a recent CWA dagger, Jane Casey is beginning to make a mark as one of the most intriguing of the new generation of crime writers. Her publishers invoke the TV drama Broadchurch on the cover, and there is no denying that those impressed by that much-acclaimed show may like this latest Maeve Kerrigan thriller, which has the same sensitivity to the dark undercurrents of a community. Kerrigan is on the trail of a killer who has strangled three women in their own homes. There has been no sign of a break-in, suggesting the women invited in their attacker. Then a disturbing suspect enters the fray: Maeve’s own boss, Josh Derwent. And this is not the first time that he has been accused of murder. Another powerful piece of work from an interesting writer.
Barry’s latest books are Nordic Noir and British Gothic Cinema
Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James