BOOK REVIEW / Glowing feast for a diamond copper: Dead meat - Philip Kerr: Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THE RECENT Best of Young British Novelists campaign was greeted, predictably enough, by a chorus of raspberries. It all seemed harmless enough to me, though, and I was pleased to see that a crime writer was included. Philip Kerr's first three novels, March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem (now republished by Penguin in one volume as Berlin Noir), were set in a brilliantly imagined Thirties / Forties Berlin, and really delivered the goods; Kripo man Bernie Gunther was a memorably satisfying creation. A Philosophical Investigation, which managed the unlikely feat of introducing Wittgenstein to the crime novel, fizzed with ideas and had a cool brilliance which helped disguise the fact that it was mutton dressed as lamb. Now comes Dead Meat which, sad to say, is pure mutton.

The subject could hardly be more timely. An investigator is seconded from Moscow to St Petersburg, ostensibly to be briefed on the activities of the Russian Mafia by the local expert, Yevgeni Grushko. He is your standard diamond copper, somewhat lacking in social graces but straight as a die, if a little over-keen on quoting Pasternak. Peter the Great's window on the West has become an open city. Grushko and his department, under-equipped, under-funded and undermanned, can only scratch at the surface. One little problem, the petrol-bombing of a swish hard-currency restaurant, is the curtain-raiser for something very much bigger and more lethal.

Investigative journalist Mikhail Milyukin, a sort of Petersburg John Pilger, is found shot dead in a car along with a Georgian hoodlum whose condition - bullets through the mouth - is a sure sign of Mafia involvement. Clearly, Milyukin has got too close to something.

The villains turn out to be Ukrainians, who have hijacked a vast consignment of EC beef somewhere near Kiev. They are transporting it in trucks that have dropped off nuclear waste at Chernobyl, rendering the meat so lethally radioactive it practically glows in the dark. Oh, and the investigator has been seconded because Grushko's superior wants his department swept for corruption. Wouldn't you just know it: the investigator's own superior turns out to be corrupt.

Nothing much wrong with the plot; and if Dead Meat is a failure, it is certainly not through lack of research. Indeed, the acknowledgements reveal that 'This novel would not have been possible without the help of St Petersburg's Central Board of Internal Affairs', though providing British novelists with a police car with driver and telephone 'on a 24-hour basis' hardly seems the best use of scarce police resources. But the research just seems bolted on; somehow you can never forget that Kerr has been jotting it all down for future use - jokes, statistics, great lumbering gobbets of information: 'Forgive me, Major, but anywhere else and I might agree with you. Here in Russia, however, most people don't own a car and when they travel any distance at all they go by train. Passengers take priority on the railways. That makes rail freight slow and unreliable . . .'

There is some pretty slack writing ('Even the price of a token had quadrupled in price'), but most irritating of all is the broken-backed narrative. The investigator (about whom we know nothing but the oft-repeated fact that his wife left him for their daughter's piano teacher) narrates in the first person, but for large chunks of the novel he just is not where the action is. Sometimes he is elsewhere in St Petersburg on police business, sometimes he is off on tomfool errands - such as going back to Moscow to fit a new gasket on his car engine. This forces Kerr towards stratagems like: 'What next took place I didn't get from Grushko but from Nikolai a few days afterwards as I reconstructed the chain of events . . .'; and the omniscient third-person narrator takes over. And the investigator does not have the depth of character to carry the narrative in an interesting manner, anyway; Kerr could have dispensed with him altogether. In the end, Dead Meat is a slog to get through, even on the beach, which is where I read it. This seems a rather conspicuous failing in a thriller.