Review: Philip Kerr – Prayer

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series is one of my favourites. The quality of the writing alone elevates each of his books above Philip-Kerr-Prayerthe average crime novel. So I was interested to see that Kerr had written a standalone thriller billed as a ‘modern horror story’. Horror isn’t a genre I’m particularly fond of, although supernatural mysteries hold more appeal, so I was intrigued to see what I’d be reading, And for most of the book Prayer was a conventional, intriguing and well written thriller that opened out into something else completely.

Gil Martins is an FBI agent who investigates domestic terrorism. Despite his religious wife, he finds himself slipping away from his faith which causes a rift in his marriage. He investigates a seemingly unconnected series of deaths where people, who by everyday standards could have been considered to have benefitted society in some way, are suddenly found dead. When a woman, who is dismissed as mentally ill, states that the victims have been killed by prayer Gil is dismissive of the claims. However, as he digs deeper into the shadowy world of the large religious congregations, he discovers something that shakes his atheism to the core.

I found this book impossible to put down once I’d started it. It’s rare these days that I come across something like this but it was a genuinely compelling read. In many ways it read like a modern fable, so removed is the world that it depicted from British life. The US religious movement came across as sinister in its fervency but as the implications of what is happening becomes clear the book is about much more than the influence of large churches.

Towards the end of the book, as the narrative changed from thriller into a confrontation with the supernatural, I felt the narrative lost some of the tension as anything seemed possible. But the book was an interesting exploration of the mechanics of faith, prayer and ultimately the nature of God.

Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.

Review: Laurent Binet – HHhH

hhhh-by-laurent-binetThis has got to be one of the hardest reviews I’ve written for this blog. Laurent Binet’s HHhH left me scratching my head in terms of both its intention and execution. So I’m going to deviate from my usual form of review and firstly describe what this book is.

On one level HHhH is the story of the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in the Spring of 1942. Heydrich, known by monikers such as ‘The Butcher of Prague’ and ‘The Blond Beast’ is widely considered to be one of the architects of the Holocaust. He oversaw key events in the early years of the Reich including Kristallnacht and, later, plans for the deportation and transporting of Jewish people to extermination camps. Heinrich Himmler was Heydrich’s boss but the saying in the SS was ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, in German ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich’ or HHhH.

The Czechoslovak government-in-exile sent two men, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, trained by British SOE forces into Prague where Heydrich had been appointed as Acting Reich Protector. Operation Anthropoid, the mission assassinate Heydrich, was botched but Heydrich died of his injuries a week later.

However, the book is not just the telling of this tale but it is also the story of Binet’s attempts to write a non-fiction novel. He recounts the process by which he writes the book, the problems he encounters and how he gets to the final narrative. The nearest book that I can think of is, John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman. However, the process narrative is nowhere near as charming in HHhH. Binet gives us footnotes, asides and attempts at humour most of which are wearying for the reader. He also, which I found to be the biggest drawback, plays games. He tells us that Heydrich wanted to known as ‘H’ to copy the British head of intelligence known as ‘M’. In the next chapter he says he made a mistake. ‘M’ is the character in James Bond, ‘C’ the head of MI6. This unreliable narration is an irritant and is incredibly self-conscious.

But there were parts of the book that worked well. I was drawn into the story of the two would-be assassins and interested enough in the descriptions of Heydrich, his wife Lina and other figures in the Reich to look up their wider stories. The book did also gain an impetus towards the end. I found the scenes where the families and friends of the two conspirators are rounded-up horrendous reading, although given what’s come before it’s hard not to feel your emotions are being manipulated.

HHhH won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. I think it’s a book that divides readers and I personally prefer a straightforward fictional account such as Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale. For some alternative views of HHhH take a look at The View from the Blue House , WinstonsDad’s Blog or For Winter’s Nights. I bought my copy of the book.

Review: Rebecca Cantrell – A Trace of Smoke

Historical crime fiction can be a problematic area for me as the quality varies widely. It’s a genre that has expanded considerably over the last decade or so but I like to pick and choose my writers based on recommendations and favourable reviews. One writer I particularly enjoy is Philip Kerr, whose books featuring the inimitable Bernie Gunther evoke the tensions and mutual suspicions endemic in Nazi Germany.

In A Trace of Smoke, Rebecca Cantrell uses a slightly earlier period of 1931 Berlin as a setting for her murder mystery featuring crime reporter Hannah Vogel. Cantrell came highly recommended by a number of bloggers including Norman at Crime Scraps and Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist both of whom have a good eye for quality writing.

Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter whose articles appear in the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper under the name of Peter Weill. When looking for inspiration for crime features, she visits the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at Alexanderplatz police station to investigate recent bodies discovered on Berlin’s streets. One Monday she studies the photographs of the weekend’s corpses and discovers the image of Ernst, her homosexual brother recently pulled from the Spree river. Determined not to reveal her connection to the body, she investigates the people in her brother’s life and discovers relationships that stretch to the highest echelons of Nazi society.

Her investigations are complicated by the arrival of Anton, a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep one evening. He claims that Hannah is his mother and that her dead brother was his father. And he has a birth certificate to prove it. However it is clear that Anton’s appearance is connected to her brother’s killing and soon events collide leaving Hannah to fight for her survival.

This was a very readable book with an interesting cast of characters and a well thought out murder plot. The character of Hannah Vogel was given a believable back-story, with an abusive father, an upwardly mobile sister and a brother who had spent his formative years hiding his homosexuality. Other characters were also well written, particularly Hannah’s friends Bettina married to a police officer and Sarah who has fled to America.

The writer has lived in Germany and she has used her knowledge of the city to good effect, with wonderful descriptions, for example, of the Jewish owned Wertheim department store and the decadent El Dorado gay club. It’s a Berlin that is different to Kerr’s even through some of the settings overlap but given that A Trace of Smoke  is set in the early 1930s, you can see the characteristics of early Nazism without it yet having reached its full expression.

I wasn’t too keen on the love story in the book. These parts veered slightly too much on the romantic for me but I’m sure would appeal to others. But otherwise it was a very enjoyable read with a very well thought out plot.

Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale

Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr’s latest novel was published this week.  It features first person narrator Bernie Gunther, a member of the Kripo – the Berlin criminal police, who by refusing to join the Nazi party is languishing wartime Germany. The book opens with Gunther accompanying the body of SS-Obergruppenführer Heydrich from Prague to Berlin. As Kerr’s previous books have featured Gunther both before and after the Second World War, this prologue helps identify the background to this book as the period leading up to the assassination of Heydrich by Czech soldiers.

The narrative then moves back a year to 1941 Berlin, where Gunther investigates the killing of a Dutch railway worker and meets the glamorous Arianne after saving her from a potential rapist. These two incidents impact on the later narrative when Gunther is ordered to Prague to protect Heydrich, the recently appointed Deputy Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Although Heydrich fears for his life, it is one of his adjutant’s Albert Kuttner who is killed. Gunther, still reeling from his experiences of participating in Jewish killings in the Ukraine identifies with Kuttner’s distress over witnessing similar atrocities in Latvia.

What follows is classic Kerr who, as usual, mixes a fine detective story with well researched historical detail. Kerr writes with a sense of irony which is so important when dealing with characters who are frankly repulsive. In his investigation Gunther, in effect, interviews all of the top ranking Nazi’s in Prague and it is a credit to Kerr’s writing that they are not portrayed as a homogenous whole, but individual characters and traits are revealed.  Kerr also acknowledges but doesn’t allow to dominate the forthcoming holocaust, only a rumour at this time, but important to remember given that Heydrich was one of the main architects of the genocide.

I was a little concerned at the start of the book that the plot reminded me a little of Robert Harris’ Fatherland, although this may have been due to the presence of Heydrich in both books. Also there are some repetitions of earlier plot themes – Gunther’s susceptibility for the femme fatale for example. But the beauty of this book is Kerr’s writing, which is both humourous and sobering. At the end of the narrative, we get as usual a round-up of the real life fates of the characters. It is grim reading and perhaps essential given the lap of luxury that the characters inhibit during this period of the war. So an excellent read as usual, and eagerly awaited as I downloaded it immediately to my Kindle.

On another note I’m a bit behind with my reviews as my first book Lip Service was longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition on Thursday and I have been working to get the full manuscript submitted to the judging panel.  Good news that a crime novel has made it into the longlist!