E-mailing the yeti

Nick Wroe treks after the abominable snowman; Esau by Philip Kerr, Chatto, pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Philip Kerr's seventh novel, opens with Jack Furness, Rhodes Scholar and mountaineer, finding a skull while climbing in the Himalayas. He gives it to his ex-girlfriend, Dr Stella ("just call me Swift") Swift, who wastes no time in getting her colleagues to sign confidentiality waivers before organising an expedition to Nepal to investigate. The skull is abnormally young and Swift, a paleoanthropologist whose tenure review is imminent, knows a main chance when she sees one.

So far so predictable and we're all ready for an Indiana Jones-type caper featuring the abominable snowman with additional spice courtesy of an India/Pakistan nuclear stand-off and the infiltration of the expedition by an unhinged CIA operative. But Kerr usually gives more than straight up and down thrillers. While his books are popular and get sold to film companies for enormous amounts of money, he also deals seriously with science and technology and enthusiastically engages with ethical and philosophical issues. Esau typifies this in that amongst the hi-jinx in the snow, Kerr takes on the biggest theme of all - the origin of species.

We learn that humans and chimps share 98.4% of their DNA; that is closer than a chimp is to a gorilla. When we come across yetis in the Himalayas we find that they share over 99% of their DNA with humans and to this reader at least, the point that they are just like us is well made. The description of a yeti birth, the infant being delivered by forceps adapted from two spoons, being eerily reminiscent of events personally witnessed at close quarters in Lewisham hospital only a couple of years ago.

That said, it's not all David Attenborough and episiotomies and the reader is quickly brought up to intellectual speed so as to appreciate properly the importance of this discovery of a new species of man.

We are told about the Piltdown Man scam (dodgy amateur archaeologist fused a human cranium to an orang-utan's jaw to fool the scientific establishment in 1912), the history and theory of radiocarbon dating (the standard textbook is Sacher's Stratigraphic Geology and Relative Age Measurement) and that the tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5 is the paleoanthropologist's camera of choice, especially when used with Fuji Reala film.

I have no idea if any of the above is true but it sounds authentic which is good enough. Sadly the same can't always be said of the dialogue. Swift is prone to make statements such as, "Electron Spin Resonance, that's where you measure the energy of the electrons trapped in the dental enamel." to which the inevitable rejoinder is, " 'Yeah. You obtain a date for the material from the ratio between that and the trapping rate.' "

But after leaving the lab for the mountains the story skips along fluently and the episodes high above the snow-line are more compulsively page-turning and the conjunction of the unspoilt environment with the explorer's hi- tech kit is stylishly handled. The silent arrival of e-mails soon becomes as sinister as the more conventional all-action skulduggery.

Kerr has structured his story well, effectively underpinning the narrative with wider scientific and philosophical concerns. As the origins of the human race are uncovered so the world comes closer to nuclear Armageddon. The wavering atheism of a scientist early in the book is mirrored by the intervention of a benign swami towards the end. Possibly with an eye to a suitably monumental film score, the scientist's crisis of faith is played out to a soundtrack of Haydn's Creation. Meanwhile the swami has to make do with sounding like Prince Charles on a bad day, muttering about how "a leaf does not turn brown and die without the whole tree knowing".

Esau has already been sold to Disney and will be screened in three years time. While Jack Furness may have referred dismissively to "abominable snowman bullshit" early in the book, Dr Swift, like Kerr, probably has her finger closer to the popular pulse with her assertion that "the public's appetite for popular science meant that there was a new theory about Man and his origins every week". Let's hope for Kerr's sake the public's appetite is still as voracious in 1999.