Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: 'A Philosophical Investigation' by Philip Kerr

A Philosophical Investigation (1992)
Philip Kerr (1956-)

 330 pages

Written in 1992, A Philosophical Investigation is a detective novel set mainly in London of the near future. Philip Kerr imagines a world in 2013 in which the financial separation between the poor and the rich has continued to increase even as the two groups live more tightly packed into the city. Parts of London built in hopes of rejuvenating its downtown have deteriorated into areas dangerous even for the police to enter, and deteriorating economic and cultural conditions have led to a rapid increase in crime --- in particular an epidemic of serial killers. Governments have turned to ever more drastic measures to provide security, with budgetary pressures both constraining and guiding the approaches taken. A possible future not difficult for a reader to identify with.

In the world of the novel, scientists in the recent past have discovered a part of the brain (the ‘ventral medial nucleus’, or VPN) which when removed reduces the self-control of aggression in males. Further research has shown that some people are born without this critical, regulating part of the brain, and that men born without it are more likely to become criminals. And, through a not-unrealistic sequence of events, the government and eventually corporate and insurance programs have led to a large group of men in the United Kingdom being tested for its presence, with promises that the results are anonymous.

The novel turns on the crimes of a killer who has managed to compromise the anonymity of the program, and is killing off those men who have been found to be VPN-negative. Assigned to the case is a tough, no-nonsense detective, Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz, who works in a department of Scotland Yard responsible for investigating serial killers; in addition to her day-to-day detective work, Jake writes and presents lectures on patterns in serial killer behavior at conferences on criminal behavior.

The chapters of the novel alternate between the voices of Jake and the serial killer as they play an increasingly personal game of cat and mouse. As the case proceeds, each begins to recognize in the other a formidable adversary, for whom they develop both a fear and a grudging respect.

Philip Kerr’s placement of the novel in 2013 put it 20 years into the future when he wrote it. Reading it in 2011, with 2013 just on our doorstep, gives an interesting twist to his original setting. The general drift in his world to increasing extremes between rich and poor, and government struggles to provide security, are recognizable aspects of our present world, even if some of the details he imagines (video-phones still have not become commonplace) have not materialized.

More challenging for the reader is the ‘Philosophical’ aspect of A Philosophical Investigation; for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, the names of famous philosophers of the past become relevant to the story, as do in some cases their theories and writings. Not having a strong background in these philosophers’ histories leaves one struggling at times to see the connections characters are drawing. One is left with the desire to go back and learn more about the philosophers mentioned, and then re-read the book to catch what might have been missed on the first reading.

Even without that background, however, the novel captures the reader’s attention in the way a good detective story should. The tension mounts rapidly as the two protagonists become more and more tightly bound together in what becomes a personal battle between them. Different from so many detective stories though, the novel does not present an easy contrast of good and evil. The reader is drawn into the conflicted complexities of Jake’s feeling about the killer, for whom she develops a kind of understanding, one that does not forgive the killings being perpetrated, but that has some sympathy for the mental struggles that have led to them.

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