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Philip Kerr defies easy categorization. Actually, he defies any categorization whatsoever, aside from the one reserved for the demonstration of sturdy, reliable storytelling shot through with flashes of surprise and artistic brilliance in book after book. He achieved the commercial success that had been deserved for so long with his historical mystery series featuring Bernie Gunther. One can only hope that those who discovered Kerr through the exploits of his police officer treading a moral tightrope in Nazi-era Germany will have searched out his other books, which range from explorations of futuristic, dystopian societies to a highly prized young adult series. We can now add to that list PRAYER, a self-contained thriller that is as complex, questioning and ultimately satisfying as anything he has written to date.

"I don’t recall ever having read a novel quite like PRAYER. It is by turns frightening, disturbing, intriguing and maddening, open to interpretation while pitching between faith and doubt."

The protagonist is a troubled everyman named Gil Martins, a once devout Catholic whose erosive doubt leaves him literally and figuratively hanging by his torn cuticles on the edge of evangelical Protestantism. He is married, interestingly enough, to a devout Christian woman, who is both his strength and an implicit disturbance for him, a reminder of who he once was. Martins is also (more significantly, for our purposes) a member of the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Unit. Scottish by birth, and now a United States citizen living in Houston, Texas, Martins learns that he has accidentally helped send an innocent man to death row. His prayers are a far cry removed from what he may have learned in the Baltimore Catechism, but are a cry for divine help nonetheless --- and all the more tragic because it is problematic as to whether or not he expects an answer.

In spite of his doubt (or maybe partly because of it), Martins, at the request of a friend in the clergy, is drawn into the investigation of a man who falls into a coma and dies for no apparent reason. He soon discovers that there have been similar occurrences, targeting both prominent members of the religious community and icons of the humanist movement. Unfortunately, his dubious superiors almost immediately discount his conclusions, leaving him adrift. His biggest problem is that there is no real evidence of any malevolent action toward or against the individuals; while their deaths are sudden and of unknown cause, there is nothing to indicate that an outside force is responsible.

When Martins discovers a list of intended victims, he becomes allied, professionally and personally, with one of them. They learn that they may be up against a new form of spiritual warfare, if you will; to wit, one in which prayer, which historically has been an act of gratitude or, more frequently, a request for intercession, appears to have been turned to a diabolical end. Martins finds that his faith --- and everything he thinks he knows and might believe --- is put to the ultimate test, as he pursues a deranged mastermind who may have found a way to turn the divine to his will.

I don’t recall ever having read a novel quite like PRAYER. It is by turns frightening, disturbing, intriguing and maddening, open to interpretation while pitching between faith and doubt. There is literally something for everyone here, regardless of the degree of your belief (or lack thereof) in the divine, and plenty of fodder for disagreement on both sides. There is also, and perhaps most prominently, a fine mystery at the core of the plot that will keep you up at night, reading and thinking. This is a wonderfully told literally thriller that should stir discussion and controversy among those who read it, as well as a worthy addition to Kerr’s masterful and unacknowledged canon.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 23, 2014

by Philip Kerr