Today’s creationists and advocates of intelligent design are the direct descendants of the devout Christians who grew hysterical upon the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. For several years, the book, and Darwin himself, were widely regarded as a threat to the stability of English society. After all, the original creationists argued, if everyone was descended from apes (as the common understanding went), then how could one justify the superiority of the upper classes? And that, fallible logic notwithstanding, is the fear that lies at the heart of Tim Mason‘s engrossing historical thriller, The Darwin Affair.
As the novel opens in December 1859, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s enlightened consort, adds Charles Darwin’s name to the annual honors list to receive a knighthood. But the scientist is not among those honored that year. In fact, “Charles Darwin never received his knighthood.” In The Darwin Affair, Mason explains why. And that opens up a complex and fast-moving tale involving reactionary peers, the staff of the royal household, a terrified Anglican bishop, and a psychopathic surgeon.
The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason (2019) 382 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The original creationists included some of England’s most illustrious men
The Darwin Affair abounds with historical figures. Queen Victoria herself, Prince Albert, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Thomas Huxley, and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) all appear at least briefly. Other people, famous in their time, add to the cast of characters: Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Sir Richard Owen, and Robert FitzRoy, who captained the HMS Beagle on Darwin’s eventful voyage (1831-36). All these individuals figure in some way in the police investigation that opens up when a deranged gunman attempts to murder the Queen.
Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is the chief of detectives in London’s Metropolitan Police. He is well known to the public because Charles Dickens had followed him on a case and written up the experience in a widely read article. And then, although both Dickens and Field deny it, had made him the model for the clever detective Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. And to Field’s annoyance, almost everyone addresses him as Mr. Bucket.
A conspiracy is afoot by the original creationists to murder the royal family
Field is present on the side of the road commanding the officers who have spread out to prevent anyone interfering with the passage of the royal carriage as it makes its way through London. But he is distracted by the sight of a known criminal who appears to be aiming a pistol at the carriage. He learns too late that the man had been planted there to distract him from the real would-be assassin further down the road. Fortunately, the assassin’s shots go wild as the carriage passes him by. But the obviously planned distraction convinces Inspector Field that a conspiracy is afoot to murder the royal family.
Unfortunately, Field is unable to persuade his superiors that the attempt on the Queen’s life represents anything more than simply another isolated event involving a mentally unstable man. With his superiors working at cross-purposes, Field is forced to undertake practically alone an increasingly desperate investigation that will prevent the assassination of the Prince Consort and bring the upper-class conspirators to justice.
For additional reading
I’ve read and reviewed three other mysteries and thrillers set in Victorian England:
- The Laws of Murder (Charles Lenox #8) by Charles Finch – An engaging detective series set in Victorian London;
- An Echo of Murder (William Monk #23) by Anne Perry – Ritual murder and Hungarian émigrés in 1870 London; and
- A Tale of Two Murders (A Dickens of a Crime #1) by Heather Redmond – Charles Dickens falls in love in “A Tale of Two Murders”.
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series;
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers; and
- Two dozen outstanding detective series from around the world.
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