At a glance, Sherlock Holmes could deduce a man's name, his age, the countries he had recently passed through and what he'd had for breakfast that day. Don Foster, an American Shakespeare scholar, has developed a similarly impressive percipience with regard to people's language. Foster's thesis is that each of us has a literary DNA, a certain way of using words that is inimitably ours. It is encoded in our sentence structures, our punctuation, our verbal and typographical tics, and the ideologies that inhere more or less visibly in the words we choose. Give Professor Foster a text and he will furnish you with a psychological profile of its author. Give him a long list of possible authors for a text, and he will tell you who wrote it.
That we can divine the personality of a writer from his or her style has long been an axiom and an engine of humanist literary criticism. Le style est l'homme meme, declared the Comte de Buffon in 1753, and the Comte's dit, which has echoed down through the ages, is more or less Foster's project in a nutshell. By combining database technology, common sense and a sharp eye for linguistic foibles, Foster has systematised his talent for attribution into something approaching a science: literary forensics, as he calls it. This peculiar skill has endeared him to the FBI, though he is less popular with a number of Shakespeare scholars, with the Newsweek journalist Joe Klein, with Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, and with sundry pseudonymous and anonymous others whom he has outed over the years.
Author Unknown is the story of Foster's unusual career path - of, as he puts it, "how the study of textual nuances of Shakespearean language propelled me onto the stage of public dramas, some tawdry, others ghastly and brutal". His first coup was an attribution to Shakespeare of "A Funeral Elegy", a 600-line poem by one W S, which had trouble getting past the Cerberuses of the Shakespeare canon because, frankly, it sounded too boring to be by the Bard ("O, whither tends the lamentable spite/Of this world's teenful apprehension . . .", etc). When the Primary Colors mystery broke, and everyone on the East Coast turned literary sleuth, Foster was the first to accuse Joe Klein of authorship. He then aided the prosecution of Ted Kaczynski, the shock-haired Luddite holed up in a shack in Montana who, chillingly, selected the names of his victims on the basis of puns and who cranked out the anonymous Unabomber's Manifesto explaining his crimes. Foster's acuity during the trial was noticed by the men in black, and he is now an occasional lecturer at Quantico, the FBI training centre.
To graduate, if it is indeed a graduation, from the courteously cut-throat world of Renaissance scholarship to that of the Supreme Court and Quantico is an achievement that merits the telling, and most of this spruce little book is fascinating. New Statesman readers will be particularly interested in the closing chapter, in which Foster goes to work on the quirks, habits and caprices of Tony Blair's prose. He also discusses the letters from the heads of state of Japan and Argentina which appeared in the Sun in 1998, and more or less proves that someone in Downing Street - Alastair Campbell is his best bet - rewrote the letters to give them a distinctly pro-Labour glister.
If there is a problem with Author Unknown, it lies with its style. For a man whose celebrity has sprung from an ultra-sensitivity to the language of others, Foster is oddly thick-skinned to his own infelicities. The prose tends to pinball between scholarly costiveness and the affected tie-loosening of an academic trying to hunker down with the common reader. This is a book in which "temperatures plummet", "elaborate hoaxes" are perpetrated and people get "fighting mad" when "stunning developments" occur.
But these are cosmetic flaws. From reading his book, I can't tell you if Professor Foster likes eggs-easy-over for breakfast, but I can tell you that he is an innovative thinker, a lynx-eyed reader, a principled man of letters with a nice line in sarcasm and a unique story to tell. Someone, in other words, with whom it is a pleasure to spend page-time.
Robert Macfarlane teaches at Cambridge