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Review: The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason
Algonquin, 2019. 373 pp. $28

The year 1859 witnesses an event that shakes England — and the Western world — to the core: the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Mason’s ingenious, exquisitely plotted, and atmospherically rich thriller supposes that the uproar over Darwin’s theory and an attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria has a nefarious connection. Further, Mason takes Charles Field, a real-life historical figure, as the detective who uncovers the connection, what it means, and who’s behind it, men in high places. Naturally, practically no one believes Field’s conspiracy theory, though one person willing to entertain the notion — however fanciful — is Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort, and, by the by, a Darwin supporter.

Charles Field, as he appeared in Illustrated News of the World, London, 1855

Charles Field was Charles Dickens’s model for Mr. Bucket of the Detective, a character in Bleak House, among the first such fictional figures. It’s a brilliant conceit to build a novel around Field, but Mason goes one better. Field hates his fame as Bucket’s alter ego, and the surest way to inflame this bad-tempered detective is to call him Bucket or taunt him by suggesting that his fictional shadow would have solved the case before now. The Darwin Affair therefore begins with both feet in the shifting sands of mythic allusion versus deadly reality, and whether a person is who he is or what others take him for. From there, things get even more complex.

Field’s nemesis styles himself the Chorister, and an evil piece of work he is. I usually avoid suspense narratives with sociopaths, because the story’s thoroughly gruesome, and I can’t stand it when an outwardly decent citizen is suddenly unmasked as a raving lunatic responsible for multiple murders. But here, you know the Chorister’s a bad one from the get-go, and the plot revolves around stopping him when so many people fail to realize the danger he poses, a classic device in thrillerdom. Once again, however, Mason goes one better. The Chorister has handlers who think themselves righteous, which shows their utter hypocrisy; and they believe they can control him, about which they’re dreadfully wrong. Rest assured, plenty of tension results. In a final stroke, the psychological source of the Chorister’s bloodlust is revealed, and plausibly, which raises him yet another notch above a mere device.

I admire how Mason imbues his narrative with history as inhabited background. I don’t mean the presence of historical figures like the royals, Darwin, Dickens, Thomas Huxley, or Karl Marx, though Mason handles them all beautifully. (Field’s confrontation with Marx is a real hoot.) Rather, I mean going beyond the People magazine fascination with name recognition to grapple with the era’s ethics, passions, and preoccupations, and to render the everyday, even at the palace. Albert’s perpetually cold because the queen hates central heating, and candles and oil lamps are the order of the day because she finds gaslight too modern. The author can’t resist a witticism, and I’m glad of that, because otherwise, we’d have done without this gem from Albert about his better half: “And, to be frank, Victoria would not approve of any assassination attempt in which she was not the target.”

Fittingly, Darwin’s theory takes center stage in this rendering of midcentury Victoriana. As everyone knows, the church objects, but the conflict feels broader than that. Evolution has subversive implications for the social hierarchy, which also seems obvious in retrospect, but has somehow faded from sight. If we share a common ancestry, and random chance happeneth to us all, who’s to say that the peer deserves his peerage, and the laundress her bleached, burning fingers? That question will never go out of style.

Interestingly, Field himself reads The Origin of Species, a struggle because he hasn’t had much education, yet he derives a great deal from it.

If I understand what Mr. Darwin is saying, a creature will do anything at all in order to survive. And every creature that does make it does so because some other creature don’t. Everything and everyone at war all the time, just to keep the show going, and it’s been a very long-running show indeed. Look at it that way, nothing matters, really.… Look at it another way, of course, it makes every second we got desperate precious.

Make no mistake, The Darwin Affair is a gory book. But it’s also the most gripping thriller I’ve read in years, so if you don’t mind the blood and mutilation, you’ll be well rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.