© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Religion, Science And Murder. It's All In 'The Darwin Affair.'


It’s a matter of fact that between 1840 and 1882 there were eight assassination attempts on the life of Queen Victoria, but in his suspenseful novel “The Darwin Affair,” Tim Mason adds a ninth, in 1860, and makes the target Prince Albert. The date is important: it’s just months after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and concomitant with the Oxford University Museum debate on evolution featuring those famous antagonists – biologist and anthropologist Thomas Huxley and Anglican Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Prince Albert wants to give Darwin a knighthood. No way say fierce evolution deniers in Parliament and powerful members of the clergy, and so they conscript a sinister anti-evolutionist to kill the prince and thus head off what would otherwise be seen as royal approval of a theory that threatens The Great Chain of Being: the way things are, have been, and must be forever.

Little do they know that their hired man, the wraith-like creature with the disturbing coal-black eyes, who “glides” his way through the narrative, Decimus Cobb, is a psychopath. A fanatic, a former boy chorister and a master surgeon, Decimus has a broader hate-filled agenda that prompts him to slice off an ear of each of his victims. The conspirators also don’t appreciate the dogged, clever work of the policeman who is in pursuit of Decimus. That’s Detective Inspector Charles Field, a witty, wry, Shakespeare-quoting middle-aged professional who has a burden to bear. To his consternation, Field is constantly referred to as Mr. Bucket, after the detective Charles Dickens made immortal, mainly in “Bleak House.” Dickins based his persistent and plodding detective on a real-life person, Charles Frederick Field of the recently formed detective unit of Scotland Yard. So here’s Tim Mason creating a protagonist who was the real-life model for a fictional Dickens character. The idea’s a hoot. So is “The Darwin Affair” – an exciting recreation of a momentous time in history.

It’s June 1860 and, as the opening has it, “The heat moved like a feral thing through the streets, fetid and inescapable.” Field is on the watch for a rumored assassin, but soon Mason is introducing a large canvas of characters, fictional and real, and recreating the sights, sounds and smells of 19th century London as Field tracks the would-be assassin. Little does he know, yet, that Decimus is a busy guy. When he’s not out threatening or murdering, he’s managing a body-snatching operation for medical students, and superintending a filthy den of children he kidnaps and tortures.   

Will Decimus, who’s aided and abetted by a cabal of well-known and well-placed personages, be caught before he gets to Prince Albert? Will Inspector Field recover from almost being killed? And what about the theory of evolution? Not so easy to answer. 

In a brief Afterword, the Mason notes that Bishop Wilberforce eventually died in a fall from his horse, prompting Huxley to comment that “Wilberforce’s brain had at last come into contact with reality, and the result had been fatal.” But the reader may remember something else: that 65 years after the Oxford Debate on evolution, the schism between fundamentalism and science would reopen in the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.
Related Content