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Binet returns with an ambitious, cluttered but ultimately worthwhile murder-mystery

Fiction: The 7th Function of Language By Laurent Binet, Harvill Secker, £16.99

Bruce's Philosopher's Song saw Monty Python have a good old chuckle at the loftiest minds in human history by bringing them down to the level of a pub lock-in. Such comic egalitarianism would be applauded in France (the home of author Laurent Binet), where philosophers occupied a kind of rock star status that saw them hounded by groupies and accruing tabloid column inches.

Binet, in case you'd forgotten, is the precocious property who was suddenly everywhere after the English language release of his debut HHhH in 2012. A meta-laced historical novel about the 1942 assassination of Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich, it sold by the bucketload and announced a bold new voice in contemporary fiction that laughed at the rulebook.

Similar deviance, as well as dimension-warping, is at work in this cluttered, but admirably ambitious romp of a thing that reads like a thinking-man's Da Vinci Code, if such a thing were ever conceivable.

It expands some of the critical theories woven into his debut regarding the responsibilities of treating historical fact in novel form and duly proceeds to set fire to them and dance on their ashes.

Some of the time, this is hugely entertaining, laugh-out-loud stuff. Elsewhere, it is esoteric, wilfully high-falutin' - if you've never considered linguistics, or critical theory, you'll get a workout - and slippery of texture.

The embarkation point is the death of renowned literary critic Roland Barthes, the Frenchman who wrote the pioneering essay The Death of the Author Theory. Barthes was hit by a service truck in 1980 and died a month later in hospital. Binet reconfigures this as being no accident.

His Barthes had in his possession a paper detailing a higher facility of language that would grant the user immeasurable powers of persuasion. On the hunt for this and Barthes' killers are Bayard, a surly Paris superintendent, and Herzog, a meek semiotics postgraduate.

The pair trot the globe, dodging goons, searching for Umberto Eco (whose name is gasped by a murdered lead) and (in the case of Bayard and, indeed, ourselves) scratching their heads.

The nature of that core McGuffin means there are dense passages that must be endured, but this is tempered by pulpy tropes and the agility of Binet's wit.

A frustrating, but ultimately worthwhile, cocktail.

Hilary A White

Belfast Telegraph

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