- - Thursday, August 15, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

An omnivorous British pal of mine loved the special dish his mother always served up at winter feasts — except for the gristle. So be it with this hearty novel, a hunt-board of a thriller rich in historical meat if, for my taste, too grisly by half.

Studded with murders committed by a psychopathic genius with an ear fetish, the story presents a delicious cast of characters, including a who’s-who in the true-to-life culture war over Charles Darwin’s theory in the 1860s. The novel depicts the furor around his revolutionary book while depicting the era’s grand tableaux — the monarchy of Queen Victoria, the golden age of Dickens, the dawn of Darwinism, i.e. evolutionary biology. Novelist Tim Mason serves them all.

Dickens himself appears and Karl Marx has a droll cameo. Sir Richard Owen, the paleontologist who coined the term Dinosauria, has a bigger part. Ditto cranky Robert FitzRoy, Darwin’s erstwhile friend and captain of HMS Beagle on their epochal voyage in 1831. Thirty years later, Darwin figures here as an old man beset by illness and tragedy. 

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, plays his pompous part as a prince of the church who condemns “On the Origin of Species” on theological grounds, foolishly abetting the novel’s murderous conspiracy. A dissenter muses, “I believe he [Wilberforce] was genuinely horrified to learn that words might have consequences in … the real world.” (In historical fact, the backsliding bishop is best remembered for his jibe about Thomas Huxley’s simian grandparents in the faux Huxley-Wilberforce Debate.) 

While controversy over the fact of evolution seems quaint today, Darwin’s thesis was incendiary when his book appeared in 1859. That some Victorians might commit murder in order to discredit the idea of “the descent of man” now looks as heinous as today’s xenophobes perpetrating massacres in the name of ethnic superiority. Back then the argument was whether Homo sapiens was kin to apes; today it boils down to whether people of all colors are one species.



Mr. Mason aptly describes the Victorian controversy and the parties to it. Prince Albert, a progressive in our terms, had triumphed with his Crystal Palace exhibition, which Tories had opposed as a magnet for thieving immigrants and an extravagant circus for hoi polloi. Here the queen’s consort nominates Darwin for knighthood, but he never got it — a fact which plots are made on. 

Another actual person is Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field, whom Charles Dickens befriended, shadowed in real life and channeled as the sleuth he named Bucket in “Bleak House.” Here, from the start, Inspector Field makes canny deductions about the criminal plot that unfolds one killing at a time. If Wilkie Collins’ contemporaneous novel “Moonstone” was the first mystery, “The Darwin Affair” masquerades as the first police procedural. 

The detective ponders its first four victims: “They’re fair desperate to tell us how they all link up to the plot against Her Majesty the Queen.” How then, a subaltern asks, is Darwin implicated? “Crash, boom. Mr. Darwin brings it all down” with his egalitarian biology. “Rule Britannia and the lot. Brings it down harder and more thorough than Mr. Marx ever dreamt in his darkest revolutionary dream.” Subaltern: “So why kill the Queen? Why not kill Mr. Darwin?” Inspector: “I’m guessing the Queen don’t know Darwin from Adam’s off-ox.” Suffice it that in Mr. Mason’s prestidigitations, red herrings upstage Galapagos finches. 

Evoking the sights and smells of England, the novelist catalogs the grandeur of monarchal life. The side-wheeler yacht Victoria and Albert has a crew of 240 (and 12 servants to attend the royals); The last Hanoverian palaces are chilly and candlelit to suit her parsimonious foibles. All is not brocade and bonbons: Inspector Field frequents London’s funky pubs and the Thames’ fetid low-tide flats, realm of scavenging “mudlarks.”

Suffice it that the villain is a deranged anatomist and Mr. Mason assays a faceted portrait: “Decimus Cobb went to the quiet place in his mind, a place where he could visualize the dissection of the man standing before him.” But pure evil gets boring and the proximate cause of his pathology comes clear in an anticlimax. Yet before that Mr. Mason twists his plot deftly — certainly more tidily than Dickens did in his serial novels of twice the length. His palaces are lavish, his London fulsome, his historical characters sweet and savory.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc., in Chevy Chase, writes about history and culture.

• • •

THE DARWIN AFFAIR

By Tim Mason

Algonquin, $27.95, 373 pages

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