BOOK REVIEW / On the trail of dropped names: Tom Shone on a bold attempt by Phillip Kerr to merge the hunt for a serial murderer with a taste for philosophical puzzles. 'A Philosophical Investigation' - Phillip Kerr: Chatto & Windus, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE we came across Dr Lecter feigning sleep on his bunk, Alexandre Dumas' Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine lying open on his chest, thriller writers have been falling over themselves to furnish their killers with the same finely-tuned aesthetic antennae as Thomas Harris's well-mannered monster in The Silence of the Lambs. The soundtrack to slaughter in Phillip Kerr's new thriller may be Schubert's Piano Trio in B flat and not the Goldberg Variations, Lecter's own favourite, but this detail is typical of the novels caught up in Harris's wake. A Philosophical Investigation is full, not so much of differences from Harris's novels as of ex-similarities - similarities that have been anxiously smudged, disguised, tweaked into differences.

Thus, as in The Silence of the Lambs, we have a ball-busting female cop with paternal traumas - Jane Jakeman, 'Jake' - whose identification with women murder victims succeeds where male forensics fail. And opposite her there is an intimidatingly intelligent killer, codenamed 'Wittgenstein', who teases her with cryptic gobbets from the Tractatus. There's even a scene in which he inhales her perfume, followed by a brief, electric brush of their fingers. Kerr's source rises from his pages like emerging invisible ink.

Saving the whole thing from outright plagiarism is the futuristic setting, which allows Kerr some amusingly inventive details - The Satanic Verses has become a Penguin Classic, and Sweeney Todd has been joined by such musicals as Jack] and Ian and Myra - as well as allowing him to set the whole thing in London. For in Kerr's future, EC serial killings have finally equalled America's.

The instinct toward serial murder has, moreover, been tracked down to a unique neural dysfunction, the sufferers of which are kept on a computer file called the Lombroso programme. Now one of them, file codename 'Wittgenstein', has tapped into the list, removed his own name, and taken it upon himself to exterminate each of the others in turn: 'Darwin', 'Byron', 'Kant', 'Aquinas', 'Spinoza', 'Keats', 'Locke', 'Dickens' and 'last but not least, Bertrand Russell'.

Unfortunately, the joke is not left at that. For on hand to explain the history of Russell and Wittgenstein's falling-out is Professor Jameson Lang of Cambridge University's philosophy department, who has been called in to help Jake with the more cryptic of the killer's messages. The novel is also book-ended by two lectures, one by Jakeman at the beginning, one by 'Wittgenstein' at the end, but really both by Kerr, which act as bibliographies for those interested in boning up on the relationship between murderer and genius: Orwell on the English murder, Eliot murdering and creating, De Quincey on murder as an art. All the usual suspects.

On the one hand, Kerr's brainy thriller pursues Harris's pleasingly conceit - it takes a serial murderer to catch a serial murderer - to its properly abstract conclusion. What we have is a novel about internecine assassination which is almost comically dismissive of those staples of crime fiction, the Innocent Victim and the Police Investigator. With these gone, and the action left to the real players, the killers, what is there for the crime novel but meta-murder, with carving up its own navel?

On the other hand, the same rules should apply to the novelist's portrayal of intelligence as to that of violence: the more you can imply, the better. Kerr's decision to hand over the narration to the killer - as he does every other chapter, thus giving us direct access to his thoughts - is surely a mistake, for Kerr's stabs at Wittgensteinean thought processes ('clearly another killing must be made in accordance with some new rules which belong to the grammar of the word 'game' ') are just plain gruesome.

And where, for example, Lecter's taste for Titian only entered The Silence of the Lambs courtesy of a conversation about flaying, Kerr's killer, with no prompting whatever, confesses to a liking for 'gorgeous Goya', and declares Blake 'the greatest Englishman who ever lived' - clumsily exaggerated enthusiasms which speak more of Kerr's desire to name-drop than his killer's character. Kerr's erudition hangs out of his novel like guts in a Clive Barker novel.

Not only that, but it bears almost no relation to the broader ingenuities of plotting that crime fiction requires. Kerr's academic code-cracking can be dangerously cosmetic, as when he notes that a doctor's beard is 'Karl Marx bushy', or makes the password to the Lombroso programme a classical allusion, but fails to attend to one absolute clanger of a coincidence in his plot: namely, why should his killer bear such startling resemblance, both physically and mentally, to a randomly-allocated codename?

As its title makes clear, A Philosophical Investigation is much concerned with the overlap between philosophy and crime fiction. As Professor Lang reminds us, the real Wittgenstein devoured detective novels by the dozen. But would he have done so if they'd started incorporating famous philosophers as characters? Probably not. In which case, this novel - so anxious to spell out a connection which should in fact go without saying - represents a curious failure of nerve.