Philip Kerr’s new standalone thriller Research is as cynical and disillusioned as a boozy publishing lunch. The novel takes two authors on the road when one of them – the super-rich, super-successful John Houston – is accused of murder.
The blurb has regrettably decided to fire its agent:
The rolling strip across the bottom of the screen shouts the news:
BESTSELLING NOVELIST JOHN HOUSTON’S WIFE FOUND MURDERED AT THEIR LUXURY APARTMENT IN MONACO.
Houston is the richest writer in the world, a book factory publishing many bestsellers a year – so many that he can’t possibly write them himself. He has a team that feeds off his talent; ghost writers, agents, publishers. So when he decides to take a year out to write something of quality, a novel that will win prizes and critical acclaim, a lot of people stand to lose their livelihoods.
Now Houston, the prime suspect in his wife’s murder, has disappeared. He owns a boat and has a pilot’s licence – he could be anywhere and there are many who’d like to find him.
First there’s the police. If he’s innocent, why did he flee? Then again, maybe he was set up by one of his enemies. The scenario reads like the plot of one of Houston’s million-copy-selling thrillers…
There’s not a huge amount you can say about Research without giving its twisty game away, but we’ll give it a go.
They say write what you know and Kerr, a crime writer with many years experience, has chosen to poke a sharp stick at his own industry. Research is a sly, psychological thriller about writers and writing, and the seething resentments that fester when creative isn’t given its due. It’s virtually a two-hander, in the spirit of Schaffer’s Sleuth or Ira Levin’s Deathtrap.
John Houston is a wildly-successful international hit machine – an amalgam perhaps of James Patterson, Robert Harris and Wilbur Smith. He’s got the beautiful actress wife, a fleet of classic cars, homes all over the shop – including a pad in Monaco – and a mistress in every town.
Houston has recently dismantled what he calls his atelier, a group of long-suffering authors who anonymously pen his never-ending torrent of novels. Houston writes the extraordinary plot outlines – he long ago realized that his readership keep coming back for his stories – and employed a team of bitter underlings to churn out the prose, long before it became a standard industry procedure. Subsequently, a lot of people have become rich on the back of Houston’s success – his publisher and agent among them – and not long after Houston disbands the atelier he goes on the run with one of his authors, Don Irvine, after being accused of shooting his wife.
A playful morality tale, Research has a lot of fun with its central, toxic relationship between Houston and his resentful friend/minion, Irvine. The pair open bottle after bottle of fine burgundy and smoke cigarettes at exclusive restaurants as they roar across the south of France in a borrowed Bentley in a bid to clear Houston’s name. Houston in particular is a terrific character, arrogant and complacent and oddly sympathetic. Imagine Kingsley Amis and Jeremy Clarkson in a remake of Thelma And Louise and you’re in the ballpark.
It’s hugely readable, at times it’s blackly funny, and the dialogue is a particular treat. Kerr fills his story with gossipy literary references and name-dropping tidbits – and there are a few choice asides about the state of the industry. Research is a bitter fairytale – what writer hasn’t dreamed of the kind of super-rich lifestyle enjoyed by Houston? – and its narrative unravels with the kind of delicate precision that would have made Ira Levin proud.
The bland title Research does the book no favours, I think, and I was expecting one more twist along the way, but Kerr delivers an enjoyably spiteful little tale – decidedly more Roald Dahl than Bernie Gunther.
Kerr’s louche protagonists, two seedy examples of the haves and have-nots in publishing, will not be to everybody’s tastes, and if you’re the kind of person who goes puce with rage at fruity language – or if you’re sensitive about your Cornish heritage – it may be a book you want to avoid. But if you like bitter morality-tales in which high-handed super-rich people are brought down a peg or two, you can do worse than take this to the beach with you.
Research is an easy read, which leaves an enjoyable vinegary aftertaste like the sediment at the bottom of that last glass of fine burgundy.
Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy of Research.