Let’s get one thing straight: I couldn’t care less about football. I’m one of the very few Englishmen who looks blank when someone asks me what team I support. When England get knocked out of the World Cup, I breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the four yearly national delusion that this year we’re destined to win.
So when I say I enjoyed Hand of God, it’s in spite of the football theme rather than because of it. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t enjoyed Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series so much, but I’m glad I did. The protagonist, Scott Manson, is the manager of a fictional Premier League football team, but the story is driven by the intrigues of the Russian oligarch who owns the team more than the mysteries of the beautiful game, as some people unaccountably call it.
There is a fair bit of football in there, but I didn’t find it got in my way. Rather it appeared as an integral part of Manson’s character, and provided a bit of light relief from the mystery at the centre of the novel. Manson is pushed into turning detective when one of his players drops dead in the middle of a match in Athens, and the Greek authorities refuse to let the team leave. With the police understaffed and frequently unpaid and the pathologists on strike, leaving it to the authorities isn’t an option.
Hand of God shows contemporary Europe from the same unfavourable viewpoint that the Gunther novels do for the Europe of the mid-20th century. That said, the Manson novels are better natured in their tone than the Gunther novels. Desperate as it is, recession-crippled Greece is a more benign setting than Nazi Germany, and Manson is a lot less misanthropic than Gunther. Gunther might emulate Manson’s management approach of kicking an arrogant player into the Aegean Sea, but he’d probably leave him to swim ashore rather than giving him a lecture on the Battle of Salamis before fishing him out.
Having said all that, I didn’t find Hand of God read as cleanly as the Gunther novels. It felt a bit rushed, and some of the writing felt uncharacteristically clumsy. Perhaps there was pressure to publish the novel before the situation in Greece moved on and dated it, or perhaps it’s a consequence of Kerr having published three novels last year. Six months after it was published, it already appears slightly dated as it doesn’t mention the rise of the Syriza party in Greece or FIFA’s spectacular fall from grace, which has made me much more interested in them than football ever did.
Those are minor niggles, and didn’t detract from a rattling good read with a bit of political commentary thrown in.