Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review of A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr (1992, G.P. Putnam)

London, 2013 (at the time of publication, twenty years in the future). Society has become more uneven and unequal with capitalism devouring the state and prison sentences have been replaced by ‘punitive comas’. The Lombroso project uses brain scans to identify men lacking a Ventro Medial Nucleus, who are more likely to commit violent crimes, and places them in an anonymous programme designed to limit their tendencies. Only someone seems to have accessed the secret database and is murdering the men, focusing in particular on those given philosopher names as pseudonyms. Detective Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz is assigned the case. Jake has her own demons related to violent men and she’s determined to track down the killer. But ‘Wittgenstein’ is a smarter than the average killer and she might have found her match. 

Kerr spins the tale out through two intertwined threads, the first the tracking police investigation, the second reproducing the journal entries written by the killer. The procedural elements are inflected with philosophical musings related to crime and punishment, with Jake increasingly questioning the ethics of the criminal justice system. The second apes Wittgenstein’s style and ideas, setting out the logic and reasoning of the killer and reflecting on the crimes committed. The result is a police procedural thriller that is thoroughly saturated with ethical and normative reflection, sometimes to the point of drowning the procedural side of the story. The issues raised are thought-provoking, but at times they seem forced centre stage, especially through the use of Wittgenstein’s notebook, and the tale feels too clever for its own good. As a result, while I found many of the ideas underpinning the book interesting, and it was quite an engaging read, it seemed a little too contrived and stilted.


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