McGuffin meets the yeti

ESAU by Philip Kerr Chatto pounds 15.99

Try this experiment in literary galvanism: hook up the flabby muscle of a bog-standard action thriller to the nerve of a simple strain of hip pop-science. Stand back and watch the animal electricity flow, netting millions of dollars from pre-publication movie rights.

This is what Michael Crichton has been doing for some time, typing out tomes like Jurassic Park, Rising Sun and Disclosure in an elongated exercise in film-idea pitching. Philip Kerr is now hailed as the British Crichton, after last year's Gridiron, the story of a computer-controlled "smart" building which tries to kill its occupants, was sold to Working Title for $1 million. Esau has already been sold to Disney for several times that amount.

The pop-science injection this time is a smorgasbord of Darwinism, genetics and palaeoanthropology. The rugged, mountain-climbing hero, honestly named Jack Furness, is scaling a forbidden peak in the Himalayas when he is hit by an avalanche. Jack falls into a cave, where he finds a miraculously preserved skull. Post-rescue, he takes the skull back to Berkeley and gives it to his occasional lover, lithe blonde palaeoanthropologist Stella Swift.

The skull appears to be that of a previously unclassified early hominid, but dating tests show it to be contemporary. Everyone is forced to the conclusion that it must be the remains of a yeti. So Jack and Stella put together an expedition to the Himalayas to find the abominable snowmen. Troublingly, at the same time, a nuclear war is brewing between India and Pakistan. What's more, one of Jack's team is secretly a psycho CIA agent responsible for tracking down an American spy satellite that has crashed somewhere in Tibet.

Chasing these dual McGuffins, the team endures all sorts of frozen hardships, yeti bites and firefights. Yes, the yeti turn out to exist. Guarded by a Tibetan monk who keeps himself warm by doing special yoga exercises, they're enormous, ginger and very intelligent. This is the major scientific "idea" of the book. Humans are not the most advanced species on earth; evolution has developed two parallel branches, and, should a nuclear catastrophe obtain, the yeti will take over the earth.

Each chapter of Esau is prefaced by an epigraph, including the now-obligatory (since his cyber-Ludwig thriller, A Philosophical Investigation) Wittgensteinism, viz: "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Characterisation is nugatory, dialogue stuffed with anti-naturalistic exposition. And given that Kerr took such offence at winning last year's Literary Review Bad Sex Prize, it is odd that he seems to be entering again: early on, Stella drops her knickers to reveal "the upturned golden divot at the nadir of her belly".

However, it wouldn't do to forget that Kerr can actually write. His blackly clever 1980s trilogy of detective novels set in wartime Berlin demonstrated that fact brilliantly. Here, Kerr is clearly choosing not to write as well as he can, perhaps because the path to riches leads elsewhere. Who can blame him? To harp on Esau's manifold faults in the realm of the literary would be a category mistake. Notwithstanding any number of prosaic cavils, it's as moreish and entertaining a pulp thriller as any this year.

It is insulting, however, to find that the novel has hardly been edited - as if, because it's already been so successful, it needn't subject itself to the cold gaze of basic publishing standards. Missing words and misspellings abound. My favourite mistake, though, comes when a character is explaining why a certain brand of sticky-rubber mountaineering shoes is called "Brundles", and refers to Jeff Goldblum's mad scientist in David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly as "Martin Brundle". In fact, that character's first name is Seth; Martin Brundle - as any fule kno - is a Formula One racing driver.

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