BookBrowse Reviews The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason

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The Darwin Affair

by Tim Mason

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason X
The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 384 pages
    Jun 2020, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tara Mcnabb
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About this Book



In this thrilling tale of murder and obsession, a sinister conspiracy is at the center of a bitter divide over the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Set in London in 1860, The Darwin Affair blends fact and fiction, imagining a string of murders against the backdrop of the controversy that resulted from Charles Darwin's radical claims about evolution. After the string of grisly homicides, Inspector Charles Field is tasked with putting the pieces together. Could the killings be connected? And if so, how? When the royal family is targeted, things take an even darker turn. Prince Albert's approval of Darwin causes a stir among religious extremists, and many worry that the monarchy has lost the ability to discern what's best for the country. As the Inspector begins to slowly see the connections between these separate events, he makes an astonishing discovery; someone out there is dead-set on eliminating those who support Darwin's work. As rumors spread of a mysterious figure known only as the Chorister, Field must double his efforts to track the clues and prevent another murder before it's too late. With the royal family's safety now in jeopardy, it becomes a devilish game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to destroy the lives of innocents and plunge the country into chaos.

There are several intriguing sub-plots and side characters that give the narrative a sense of richness and complexity. We are given glimpses into an imagined version of Darwin's home life and his relationship with his wife, Emma. The family's confusion and terror at the hostile backlash that follows Darwin's book is heartbreaking, as is the humility that Darwin himself seems to exude when he learns that the murders are connected to his work. Others suffer a different and altogether wretched fate at the hands of a madman; a young boy named Tom is kidnapped off the streets and kept in a coffin for days, then forced into a life of servitude. Vulnerable to his new master's fiery temper, Tom's despair is evident when he begins to suspect that this man is actually the infamous Chorister. His suspicions are confirmed when he witnesses firsthand his captor's brutal rage against another man: "The next blow, to the side of the head, was the last...A stinging scent of urine suddenly filled the coach." Moments later, Tom is ordered to empty the dead man's pockets. The young boy refuses, however, and so his captor "boxed his ear savagely."

The sense of fear and paranoia is vividly felt through the moody descriptions of the gritty streets of London. Inspector Field must navigate through some of the seediest alleyways and back streets, all while looking for signs of the killer's presence. Darkness is closing in, and the street lamps do little to disperse the strong sense of foreboding. The killer lurks in the shadows, hiding himself just enough to go unnoticed. No one is safe, and the city provides no respite from the toiling and drudgery of existence: "Along the river Thames...each day brought forth swarms of ragged creatures who waded into the filth and sewage...searching for anything of value that might be salvaged and sold." This desperate atmosphere only serves to heighten the anxiety of a violent disaster that lurks just around the corner.

Expertly written, the book successfully leads readers down a dark path of mystery, only to pull the rug out, leaving us shaken to the very core. The phenomenal and unexpected twist at the end is a reminder of the staying power of a great villain, one that is worth remembering long after the final page. With gripping dialogue, swift pacing and a fascinating premise, The Darwin Affair is a captivating hybrid of thriller and historical fiction.

Reviewed by Tara Mcnabb

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2019, and has been updated for the June 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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