Wednesday, 5 March 2003

Philip Kerr: Esau (1996)

Edition: Vintage, 1997
Review number: 1146

A Himalayan climbing accident leads Jack Furness to discover a humanoid skull in a mountain cave - the first uncontestable evidence for the existence of the Yeti. When he returns to the States, he gives it to a friend and occasional lover who also happens to be a researcher into human evolution. This is Swift's big chance for academic fame, so she begins investigating the skull and putting together a grant application for an expedition to the Himalayas. Partly because of the secrecy with which she needs to surround her work with to prevent her breakthrough being stolen, and partly because of tension between India and Pakistan making Nepal an unsafe place to visit, her application is initially turned down. But the tension also makes the CIA keen to introduce an agent into the area, and so, without Swift's knowledge, pressure is brought for the decision to be reverse and for an agent (who is also a scientist in a relevant field - a useful coincidence for the benefit of the plot) is told to apply to be part of the team.

The yeti hunt side of the novel - which provides the title, the Yeti being equated with Esau in the Biblical story - is quite well done, and is reminiscent of stories like The Lost World or the film Jurassic Park. (One of the quotes on the back compares Kerr to Michael Crichton, writer of the story which became that film, but Kerr is a much more satisfying writer - there is more to him than a series of moderately interesting ideas.) Such a hunt in the Himalayas has in itself enough potential danger and interest to make a worthwhile subject for a thriller without the political element introduced here, and the activities of the CIA agent seem to me to detract from Esau as a whole. In fact, the whole of the second half of the novel is a disappointment, after the build up to and the early part of the expedition. If Esau had continued to live up to the promise of its first half, it would have been an excellent thriller, but the implausible politics make it unsatisfying.

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