E-mailing the yeti

Nick Wroe treks after the abominable snowman; Esau by Philip Kerr, Chatto, pounds 15.99

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test