on July 7, 2004
Book Review by C. Douglas Baker
London 2013. Genetic typing has allowed the British government to identify men with a predisposition to serial killing. Now, someone is going around murdering all the men on the list! Thus is the setting for Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation.
As a science fiction work, Kerr has painted a very believable future with a variety of insights on the day-to-day ramifications of modern technology. Gene typing allowing the government to identify potential serial killers could be used for nefarious purposes by an over zealous government. In this case Kerr avoids the "big brother" syndrome, instead showing that the existence of this information becomes dangerous, despite the government's humane intentions. An example of the everyday affect of new technology: a female detective gets a call in the middle of the night from a colleague, answering her picta-phone without thinking she inadvertently exposes herself and the caller makes a lecherous comment about her (...). Homosexuals now use a new, thicker condom less likely to break. Overuse of "reality approximation devices" (virtual reality), is likened to the overuse of LSD; many who overuse such devices begin to lose touch with reality. None of these tidbits are at all central to the story, but along with other small insights, build up a believable future environment.
Readers will recognize many of the developments in 2013 London, both technologically and socially. [NOTE THESE CULTURAL VIEWPOINTS BELOW ARE EXPRESSED BY CHARACTERS IN THE BOOK, THEY ARE NOT VIEWPOINT OF THIS REVIEWER.] Women continue to advance in social equality. Cynically Kerr depicts governmental organizations, such as police forces, as being forced to accept women equally. One British Minister is a black female but a former Olympic sprinter with good looks, which no doubt immensely helped her rise to this position. Again a pessimistic, although realistic, depiction of the social advancement of women. While the women may not always be looked upon as equals by their male colleagues, they continue to prove themselves the equal of men in most cases, and in some tasks they are deemed even better.
Unfortunately, as a mystery novel, A Philosophical Investigation does not come off as well. Kerr could have done much more to add to the suspense of the novel. The culprit is found out early on and the conclusion seems preordained from that point forward. The tracking and catching of the killer is mildly entertaining at times but for the most part is mundane.
The real strength of this book lies in its setting and the creation of a recognizable 2013. Kerr's understanding of the ramifications of technological advances allows him to depict the use of technology in a realistic, day-to-day fashion that is not common in the science fiction genre. The plot and story itself are less satisfying but there is enough of interest here to entertain the casual reader.
on June 14, 2001
In "A Philosophical Investigation" Philip Kerr comes up with one of the most original premises I have ever encountered in the "thriller" genre. What if a killer philosophically justified his murders in advance, and what if modern science, on some level, supported those justifications?
I don't want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that Kerr's Earth of the 2020's is a dystopia in the classic tradition. On the surface, everything is OK, as technology has made work easier and play more intense. At the same time, though, the technology has subtly stolen the freedom of the indivdual and blurred the lines between right and wrong. As a result, the villain lives in a world where a logical moral argument can be made for the murder of society's undesirables. Is murder wrong if it removes potentially dangerous (genetically identified) people from society?
"A Philosophical Investigation" succeeds as a futuristic thriller without any literary pretensions. The characters are deep and well drawn, and the future England is realistic. However, it is those "literary pretensions", that set this novel apart and that will leave you thinking. Enjoy!
on July 10, 2010
This is really not a very good novel from a normally very good author. The philosophical asides barely work toward the procedural solving of the crime, and manage to get only confuse issues, including the author. I would skip it and try one of his other crime novels, which are pretty good versions of Hammett or Chandler but in German from just before and just after WWII.
on March 31, 2002
Solving the murder is the easy part of A Philosophical Investigation. FigurIng out which mystery Philip Kerr is actually trying to solve takes a little longer. Is it the brutal death of a woman or the metaphysics of reading?; a computer beak-in or the poetics of William Blake? Maybe Kerr's book is simply a complicated case of mistaken identity: an innovative treatise on moral philosophy disguised as a riveting feminist science-fiction detective novel.
Ostensibly about a meta-serial killer (a serial killer who kills potential serial killers) in the London of 2013, A Philosophical Investigation is composed of two distinct narratives. One is the blow-by-blow account of investigating officer, Detective Chief Inspector Isadora "Jake" Jakowicz. Abused by her father and harassed by her superiors, DCI Jakowicz is fighting Western Civilization's newest epidemic-"hollywood-style, recreational murders," media-generated, purposeless, ritualistic acts of male violence against women.
The second narrative is composed of diary entries by the serial-killer, codenamed "Wittgenstein" (the famous philosopher whose last work is titled-what else?-Philosophical Investigations). Part computer hacker, part dedicated public servant, part philosopher, "Wittgenstein" routinely gets his kicks by raping, killing, and mutilating computer generated images of women on his "Reality Approximation" machine in the virtual reality/privacy of his own apartment/mind. The problems begin when he decides to become a real world vigilante.
The alternating narratives also create a weird montage of current scientific and philosophical positions. Between the two of them, Jackowicz and Wittgenstein cover everything from the sexual symbolism of the brain to the mystical power of common names. By the time the narratives actually intersect, Kerr has shaken up most of our common assumptions about everything from free will to media manipulation, gender relations, political correctness, and the biology of morality.
Despite the "wonders" of universal DNA coding, holographic interfaces, and satellite phones, A Philosophical Investigation is more concerned with cross-examining the present than with escaping to the future. For Kerr that means coming up with a way to remain human in the face of vast systems of social tyranny and technological control. Through it all, Kerr remains optimistic. The low-key heroism and complex moral vision of DI Jakowicz will come as a great relief to anyone who appreciates the difficulty of doing the right thing in a world gone bad.
on June 29, 1999
It's the execution that received a paltry four stars. The idea is brilliant and disturbing: what are the logical consequences of discovering that a specific genetic trait, identifiable through mass testing of the population, correlates with (or causes) serial killing? Kerr imagines such a situation, and in this plausible near-future world one of the men with this trait decides to make a series of pre-emptive strikes on his cohorts.
I would have liked to see a deeper engagement with the philosophical ramifications of this. There is plenty of philosophy here, but it's relatively shallow (perhaps inevitable in a novel that has no pretensions of being a treatise). My largest complaint is that there's doubt even at the end whether the perpetrator is in fact completely sane. This dulls the impact of the self-fulfilling prophecy (tell an otherwise law-abiding man he's genetically predisposed to serial homicide, and what do you think he's going to go out and do?), and also of the moral problem. The narrator of Walker Percy's "Lancelot" is a fascist, but at least he doesn't think he's his own pseudonym. (Incidentally, this is perhaps the least plausible part of the novel: upon being diagnosed, the soon-to-be killer is given by the government the alias "Wittgenstein," a philosopher with whom he has so much in common, and with whom he identifies himself so closely, that he may become delusional, at times thinking he is in some way Ludwig Wittgenstein. What are the odds of him getting that one name out of all the possible aliases? Please.) The novel would have been much stronger, and its message much more disturbing, had only the killer been clearly sane. Then the contrast between the retribution-minded government and the prevention-minded killer would have been more interesting. Then the reader would have to take seriously the killer's conclusions drawn from premises of existentialism and utilitarianism. Kerr leaves a way out for the reader ("the man's crazy!") that he shouldn't have allowed.
on March 24, 1998
This book, with its clever double-barelled storyline, combines the fears of today with the known reality of tommorow. In a brilliant realisation of 21st century London, Kerr projects images of a decaying culture against the backdrop of the European superstate.The fact that he manages to prey upon our concerns so much relies on his ability to show us our own fears so coherantly.
In an ultra violent society of the future which has become so denatured as to exclude compassion, Paul Esterhazy is a killer with a head for logic and a mind for Wittgenstein. He has a rare genetic disposition which makes him a likely candidate for mass murder. By hacking into a government computer he manages to find a list of other potential killers. He then sets about exterminating them.
In an effort to contain Esterhazy, Chief Inspector Jackowicz must try and capture him to limit the damage. However, under pressure from the Home Office an attempt is made to use Esterhazy's philosophy against him, i.e. force him to take his own life. Ironically it is left to C.I. Jackowicz to save Esterhazy from himself - but can she do it.
This book engages the reader by firstly spinning a carefull web of Esterhazys mind and then finally ensnaring the reader within it. The best thing about this book is that an entire 'mindspell' becomes apparent and, despite its title, no prior knowledge of philosophy is needed.
On a personal note, this book inspired me to write a screenplay based upon it. However, I appear to have been beaten to the rights - still, I can't wait for the movie!
on February 22, 1997
Wittgenstein, the philosopher whose thinking drives the thinking of the killer in this novel, once said that "what can be said can be said clearly". Wittgenstein described philosophy as the clarification of thoughts. The killer in this novel is a philosophical killer--his kills are clarificatory kills; each is held to standards of clarity; each is an exhibition of logic: After all, as Wittgenstein also said, "no mistakes are possible in logic". So, if each kill is clear and logical, each kill is correct.
This book is memorable because of the way in which Wittgenstein's word-racking investigations, his obsessional searches for clarity, are internalized by a killer. In internalizing them, the killer transmutes them, subtly and not-so-subtly changing Wittgenstein's logical existentialism into a pathological existentialism. The transmutations are balanced by the transmutations of the detective who is chasing the killer. The detective attempts to internalize Wittgenstein, to turn his philosophical methods into methods of policework.
The book's weakness is a function of its strength: it straddles the line between futuristic noir detective novel and psychological/philosophical thriller. Each genre makes severe demands on a sucessful novel, and Kerr shortchanges each in his attempt to do both. Still, the book's a solid read; it provokes both thoughts and thrills.
on July 17, 1998
After reading this book twice in the space of two years I can honestly say that this is both a fine novel, a philosophical primer and a fabulous movie waiting to happen. By casting a woman as the books anti-hero (and she's certainly not perfect) whilst avoiding gratuitous sex and fragility Kerr gives us someone we can trust and believe in. The bond that builds between the books primary characters echoes reality more than convention and he's unafraid of making relationships and concepts so complex that easy answers are impossible. Anyone who enjoys being entertained and stimulated simultaneously, or who thought that "Seven" was a great movie should read this book. If all you've read from Kerr has thus been disapointing, trust me his talent is far more reliable than his consistancy.
on April 27, 1998
This book has a great many clever ideas, and a tight and engaging narrative which makes it a thought-provoking and entertaining read. The musings of the Wittgenstein character are distrurbing and fascinating in equal measure.
However, the dialogue (with the exception of some of the Wittgenstein 'pieces') is awful, and the female inspector's character is given an extremely thin characterization, to the point that she is almost unbelievable.
Well worth reading regardless, for its portrayal of the darker, yet sharply logical, side of the human mind, and with some interesting ideas about possible future society.
on September 16, 1996
The book was recommended to me by a friend, and I found it very interesting. Psychologically, and just plain amazement at the wonders of the 21st century.
It is very cool but at the same time scary to think what the world will come to in 15 years from now, 20 when the book was written by Phillip Kerr. Test being able to recognize in a person a tendency to become a serial killer, new methods of death sentence, and new weapons.
Also, it was nice to see a woman taking charge for once.