Research by Philip Kerr has raised an interesting question in my mind, that I’d never really thought about before. How do author’s feel when they release novels that are inferior to previous works? Do the even know? With Bernie Gunther and his original Berlin Noir trilogy, Kerr created one of modern crime fiction’s finest characters and gave him stories to match. The subsequent Bernie Gunther novels, whilst a couple of them approach the original three, simply aren’t as good. I was interested when I learned Kerr had written a new non-Gunther novel. I’ve read a couple of his others, (Dark Matter and Hitler’s Peace), which I’d mostly enjoyed. How would Research compare? To be honest, at best, it’s mediocre.
Successful pop stars with long careers, are generally carried by their early work; their seminal albums. They might still be going thirty years later, but nobody especially wants to hear their new stuff. Who wants to listen to high-flying birds, when you could be having a champagne supernova? Outlaw Pete is not Born to Run and let’s not even start on Wings vs The Beatles. Obviously it’s not always true, but I often wondered how artists feel about consistently producing work that’s poorer quality than their old stuff. Perhaps they don’t care if the money keeps coming in. Perhaps they believe it is just as good, after all public popularity is hardly the yardstick of high quality.
With authors though I imagine the effect is more marked. Popular music is catchy hooks and memorable lines. Writing novels is heart, body and soul; hours of hard work, lovingly polished. That’s not to say some songs aren’t painstakingly crafted, but nobody wrote a bestselling novel in under 10 mins. If you’ve lived and breathed all your novels, surely you know would which ones are good and which ones are just OK. Unless of course you were James Patterson and somebody wrote your novels for you. Then perhaps you’d have no idea.
One of the narrators of Research novel might be similarly clueless. John Houston is an ideas factory. He churns out plots and a team of anonymous writers turns them into novels. They sell millions. Houston is filthy rich, his writers comfortable. He lives the high-life in Monte Carlo, they live in bitter resentment. His wife has just been killed. They all might be in the frame if Houston didn’t look so open and shut guilty. The other narrator is Don Irvine, the closest thing the unlikeable Houston has to a best friend and the first writer employed in the ‘atelier’. The basis of the novel is, did Houston kill his wife? If not, who did and how an earth did they do it? It’s like something James Patterson didn’t write.
The novel is fairly entertaining. Lots of jokes about the publishing industry, which are funny if you like that sort of thing. Plenty of literary references to enjoy or endure, depending on which way your mind is set. There are some witty rejoinders, though Kerr seems to have forgotten that whilst his authors might write quips into their novels, if they speak that way all the time, they sound like the result of a bad creative writing exercise.
The main problem though is that the central story just isn’t that interesting. By the end I couldn’t remotely care whether the perpetrator got away with the crime or not. The story leading up to it was far-fetched yet hum-drum ordinary. The reveal in the middle was as exciting as sitting on punctured whoopie cushion. This sort of novel, with a mystery running through it’s core, lives or dies by the twist in the final pages. The one that turns the novel into something else entirely. You’ve seen the Usual Suspects, you know what I’m talking about.
Kerr neglected to put it in.
The novel bumbles along, with cloak, daggers and duplicity. We’re treated to a few extra bodies, and then pffft; nothing. The novel closes and the reader wonders why he bothered. It feels like somebody forgot to print the last fifty pages, where all the trickery is revealed. I have no idea whether Kerr thinks this novel is as good as his others. It’s so much weaker it’s hard to believe that he does. Writers have to earn a living, they need to keep producing novels. Not every book can as brilliant as the last, but this one is a massive disappointment.
Many Thanks to Corinna at Quercus for sending me a copy of this book.