False Nine by Philip Kerr

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false nine

Philip Kerr’s  Bernie Gunther novels are wonderfully written, tense historical mysteries with the perfect amount of historical research, and unlike most series they just seem to be getting better. The Lady From Zagreb, released earlier this year, is possibly Philip Kerr’s best novel so far. But sometimes he branches out, and one of the new directions he’s taken is into the world of football. False Nine is Kerr’s third Scott Manson novel, featuring the former manager of the fictitious Premier League club London City FC.

Manson has been forced to resign because of an unsavoury truth he uncovered moonlighting as the footballing world’s private eye. So, he’s looking for a new job, and it’s uncertain whether he’ll find one – the football world is a little racist, after all, and Manson is a half-black Scotsman. After an interview with a small Scottish club he accepts an invitation to China for the opportunity to coach a Chinese Super League club, the plaything of one of the country’s richest men. The deal sounds too good to be true, and it is. Manson walks into a trap, the bait in a game between Chinese multibillionaires, and leaves with his tail between his legs.

After his short stint in China, he returns to Europe unable to find a job, but is invited to dinner with FC Barcelona, who previously offered him a job. This time, however, they don’t need him as a manager but in his role as a detective. A star player, Jérôme Dumas, was meant to join FCB from Paris Saint Germain on loan, but never arrived. It’s Manson’s job to find him and bring him back. Manson’s investigations, which are more in the vein of James Bond than Bernie Gunther, take him from the banlieues of Paris to Antigua and Guadalupe, all with a drink in his hand and a girl on his arm.

The visit to China seems hastily inserted to allow a reference to the title – the club’s name is Shanghai Xuhui Nine Dragons, and the False Nine in the title refers to the lone striker position, where the forward drops deep to draw the defenders, creating an opportunity for team mates to run into the space. The tactic is a kind of diversion, a sleight of hand, a way to trick your opponent. This relates closely to the unfolding plot of the missing footballer, however Manson’s trip to China, in all its one-and-a-half chapters, feels too full of unnecessary racism. Perhaps the world of super-rich Chinese football-club owners is really the racist and sexist world Kerr portrays, but the opening stages of False Nine may be very off-putting to a non-football fan.

This is not for want of trying; Kerr explains footballing references and terminologies well, sometimes more than necessary. Football is at once a background detail and the main story, more important than life or death. But the thing about football is it’s frustrating – anyone who’s watched their team hand over a two goal lead to lose 3-2 knows that. Sometimes, in the world of football and in False Nine, you can have all the elements for success, but none of them working together. Kerr writes well, both about crime and football. At one point Manson insinuates that ‘Phil Kerr’ charges a handsome sum to ghostwrite footballers’ autobiographies, and given the way this novel is written, I certainly believe him.

For more crime fiction about the beautiful game, check out our 2014 World Cup Special.

Head of Zeus

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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