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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Don Foster: Literary detective
Cover of Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous
Literary forensics led to academic celebrity
By the BBC's Tom Reed

Primary Colors was the novel that had Washington abuzz and spent ages at the top of the bestseller list.

Written under the nom de plume "Anonymous", the book savaged Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

So who was the culprit?

The man to find out was Professor Don Foster, a Shaft among literary forensics experts, and resident textual Ghostbuster at Vassar College, New York.

Don Foster has written a book about the trials and tribulations of becoming an academic celebrity, and about the cases that shot him to stardom.


Apart from figuring out that Joe Klein, an embittered Newsweek hack with a penchant for racy adjectives, was the author of Primary Colors, Foster confirmed that Ted Kaczynski wrote the Unabomber manifesto.

Kaczynski, it turns out, was an ex-maths teacher turned backwoods maniac with a thing for pop philosophy, icebergs, and bombs.

This heady combination was no match for the professor though.

Foster laughs in the face of the split infinitive and the parallel construction. He eats Questioned Documents for breakfast. And it is actually rather exciting.

Former President Menem of Argentina
Menem quickly disavowed his abject apology

Quite apart from the saucy details of Klein's novel and the analyses of White House intern gossip, there is also a healthy dose of academic bitchiness and a chapter on The Sun for those not up on their Americana.

The Sun case involved two open letters of apology apparently written by foreign heads of state to the British people - one from Mr Hashimoto of Japan, and one from Mr Menem of Argentina.

Ostensibly written to apologise for Japan's treatment of Allied POWs in World War II, and the Falkland's War respectively, the letters curiously spent most of their time praising Mr Blair as a rising star on the world stage.

Menem quickly disavowed his abject apology in the face of Argentine outrage.

With all fingers pointing at Downing Street, and the Argentineans and Tories out for blood, the BBC called in literary forensics expert Foster, to discover the truth.

Gripping though Anonymous is, I did have a few problems with Foster's style.

He writes by turns as the na´ve and hapless professor, the happy family guy, the Marlowe-esque gumshoe, and as the impartial expert witness.

The incoherence of this literary persona grates slightly, and, at the risk of playing him at his own game, I can only suggest that he is still not entirely comfortable writing for a popular audience.

Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster is published by Macmillan

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