Philip Kerr,
The Second Angel
(Henry Holt & Co., 1999)

On the dust jacket of Philip Kerr's novel The Second Angel, the author is described as having "an encyclopedic intelligence and a talent for fast-paced, sophisticated thrillers." Unfortunately, all of Kerr's characters, most notably those from underprivileged, less-educated backgrounds, demonstrate similar encyclopedic intellects. They're frequently pointing out historic or classical mythology parallels to their predicaments. It's showy writing, not a style of which I'm overly fond. That plus a central conceit of The Second Angel that results in frequent and lengthy footnotes make this novel far less successful than it might have been.

However, Kerr has come up with a core premise that allows him to combine the science fiction and "sophisticated thriller" genres very entertainingly. The Second Angel takes place in 2069. Humanity has been divided into two groups as a result of the blood virus known as P2, which has infected some 80 percent of the population. Uninfected blood has replaced gold as the standard upon which the world's currencies are based. Nice idea, lots of potential.

Enter Dana Dallas, resident of a Clean Bill of Health Zone, designer of high security blood banks including First National on the moon. Blood banks are where the world's blood reserves are stored and no one has ever managed to rob a bank designed by Dallas. But when the president of Terotechnology learns that Dallas's daughter has been diagnosed with a rare, nonviral blood ailment, he decides that his top designer has become a potential liability and the company sets out to terminate him.

Who better to try to penetrate the impenetrable First National than its designer once he learns that his boss has tried to have him and his family killed. Then we get to the silly bits -- the robbery itself is easily the weakest part of The Second Angel. So often when non-SF authors attempt to write inside the genre they make the type of mistakes that plague the tail end of this book. Last-minute gimmicks and gizmos are a bad idea in SF. And what's most disappointing in the case of The Second Angel is that the plot could have avoided this trap.

I found The Second Angel frustrating. It's a "fast-paced, sophisticated thriller" that desperately needed some restraint in terms of its SF trappings. If Kerr had held to the dictum "less is more," this could have been a terrific book. As it is it's a great idea buried in a mediocre plot.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 11 December 2004

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