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The Second Angel

by Philip Kerr

(Henry Holt and Company, $25.00, 392 pages, hardcover, January 1999. Pocket, $6.99, 464 pages, paperback, March 2000.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

The dark, uncompromising Berlin Noir trilogy heralded Philip Kerr's literary debut. These novels, originally published from 1989 to 1991, chronicled the travails of Bernie Gunther--cover scana German police officer who despised the Nazis--from the ascension of Hitler to the aftermath of the Second World War. Kerr deployed his masterful grasp of history, hard-boiled crime fiction, anthropology, and psychology to great effect and created an unforgettable saga.

Since then Kerr has treated his readers to A Philosophical Investigation of serial killing in 21st-century London, the Dead Meat of the Russian Mafia, The Grid of an artificially intelligent murderous Los Angeles building, a Himalayan missing link called Esau, and the criminal mayhem behind A Five-Year Plan.

His new novel, The Second Angel, is a welcome return to the more ambitious scope of Kerr's earlier novels (after three relatively light books). Here, he focuses his eager imagination on the year 2069--the centennial of the lunar landing--and describes a society sick not only with a deadly blood virus called P2 but also with an insidious greed that allows the diseased to suffer and die even as a cure is readily available.

The cure for P2 is a total blood transfusion. The irony, very resonant in these economically unbalanced times when the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get poorer, is that the only people who can afford the cure are the only ones not afflicted with the virus. Blood, pure uninfected blood, has replaced gold or any currency as the economic standard. The healthy give blood as often as they can and then deposit it in ultra-secure blood banks, where it is stored as collateral against mortgages, investments, etc. There is enough blood deposited in the various banks worldwide to eradicate the deadly, slow-acting virus, but capitalist economy precludes its use. The healthy and diseased are segregated--a valid health card is required to gain entry to many hotels, restaurants, offices, parks, and even neighbourhoods.

Such is the status quo presented in The Second Angel, accepted without question by the privileged protagonist--Dallas--until circumstances shatter his world. He designs security systems for Terotechnology, whose clients include blood banks. Events push his employer to order Rimmer--Terotechnology's head of internal security--to assassinate the star designer. Rimmer's failure nevertheless begets tragic consequences. Dallas's quest for vengeance leads him to assemble a team of P2-infected outlaws to break into the Moon-based First National Blood Bank (which he designed) during the centennial celebrations of the Apollo landing.

In one of its many speculative forays, and this one ultimately proves to be pivotal to both theme and plot, The Second Angel delves into quantum computer technology. Quantum computers are currently theoretical. Quantum theory states that, until influenced by observation, all probabilities exist simultaneously. Quantum computers, based upon this theory, would operate in infinite or near-infinite realities, hence increasing their capabilities beyond anything presently possible. Whether or not such machines are feasible, they are nonetheless being researched and the idea of them can serve as inspiration to explore the impact of their development. Ian Watson's earlier Hard Questions (1996) is the first novel I've come across to deal with this area of speculation. Its treatment of the concept--involving a wholesale revamp of reality--is more fantastic than The Second Angel's, whose sober yet awe-inspiring conclusion challenges the reader to wrestle with intriguing moral ambiguities.

Philip Kerr's The Second Angel is rich with peculiar characters, daring ideas, and astute speculation. It skilfully allies the serious preoccupations of his early work (the struggle to retain personal dignity in a society stripped of its collective dignity) with the more commercial action-oriented drive of his latter books. Kerr's vivid depiction of this future world highlights its cinematic potential. Certainly, former Blade Runner Harrison Ford would make a perfect Dallas and the evil Rimmer begs to be portrayed by Kevin Spacey of The Usual Suspects and Seven infamy. It's a great read that works as thriller, science fiction, and literary entertainment.


Originally published, in substantially different form, in The National Post, 13 Jan 1999.

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