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.

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

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices