It probably goes without saying that when Charles Darwin published his revolutionary theories regarding evolution, and their supporting evidence, in The Origin of Species in 1859, there was controversy. Even today, 160 years later, Darwin’s theory of species evolving over time still engenders strong feelings of resistance to his ideas, especially within faith-based communities, in spite of the fact that his ideas gained the wide ranging support of the scientific community long ago. So, it probably isn’t surprising that when first introduced, Darwin’s ideas sparked outrage and controversy among his contemporaries. It is also important to note that, even though Prince Albert attempted to acknowledge Darwin’s contributions to natural science by a knighthood, it was never bestowed. It is this controversy, and the wide range of people who were affronted by Darwin’s postulations, and the range of their reactions, that Tim Mason uses as a jumping off point for his excellent novel.
Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is an exemplary London police officer. So much so that Charles Dickens actually sought him out, followed him around on his nightly patrols and wrote about his work fighting crime on the London streets in “On Duty With Inspector Field,” an article in Household Words. Dickens then went on to base the character of Mr. Bucket in Bleak House on Field. All of these literary references have resulted in more than a bit of notoriety, which Field can, at times, use to his advantage. But most of the time, especially when people insist on calling him “Mr. Bucket,” he wishes he had never met Mr. Dickens. In spite of the notoriety, Field is an exceptional detective. So, whether it is due to his skill or his fame, Inspector Field finds himself guarding Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they make their way to a public appearance in the West End. There have recently been several attempts on the Queen’s life of late, and security has been raised to ensure her safety.
In spite of the additional measures taken, another attempt is made against the royal couple. Just prior to the gunfire, Field notices Stevie Patchen, a known small time criminal, raise his hand in a threatening manner. Field turns his attention to him, and as a result, misses the actual shooter. Field secures Patchen and moves with the other officers in the area toward the shooter. The shooter missed both Victoria and Albert, but he did attempt to shoot them. He is taken into custody and before Field can retrieve the other suspect, he is found to have been killed. His throat has been slashed and his ear has been cut off.
While other police officers on site believe that this is just another failed attempt to kill the Queen, Field sees more. He finds it odd that Stevie was there and intentionally drew his attention at the moment the shooter fired. It turns out that the shooter is a madman, who has little interest in the Queen or the afternoon’s activities. For some, the fact that he is mad is reason enough to charge him with the crime, but Fields knows better. There was a decoy and a perpetrator, and the two acted in a coordinated fashion. This, he believes, means that there was someone else involved, someone who put the other two in place. The question is: who is that person? Or is it a group of people, and why did they do it? Seeking the answers to those questions will lead Field into a viper’s nest like he has never before uncovered. An intricate web of deceit and a desire for the status quo, with strands that reach into the highest levels of the government and the church, and all with the single goal of silencing Charles Darwin and his supporters.
In The Darwin Affair, Tim Mason, a successful playwright, provides a top notch historical mystery, spinning a tale of intrigue and conspiracy that ranges throughout the highest levels of the British aristocracy and church. Mason uses his dramatic skills as well as plenty of excitement and action, well-timed and paced, along with nicely executed dialogue. There is also a wonderful sense of the Victorian era, including cameos by some of the more famous, and infamous, individuals of the time. But, where the novel really shines is in Mason’s characters, especially the two main characters: Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field and Decimus Cobb.
Field, the novel’s protagonist, is a wonderful creation, even though he is based on the man Dickens’ used for inspiration of the same name. A rough-raised individual who is in no way comfortable in the higher social strata in which he continually finds himself. Field knows the difference between right and wrong and feels that justice needs to be dispensed evenly, regardless of the standing of the perpetrator. He is often flummoxed by the rules of civility, which lead to several interesting predicaments, but his heart is always in the right place.
In sharp contrast to Field is the character of Decimus Cobb. A tall, imposing figure who appears to glide rather than walk and comports himself like a gentleman at almost all times. He is a former choirboy, who sings beautifully, and he has garnered a reputation for his skill as a surgeon at a local operating theatre, in spite of having no formal education or training. He is also a complete and utter sociopath. While he has his reasons for not wanting Darwin honored for his theories, he has been working for a long time at the behest of some of the most powerful men in England. Decimus Cobb is a truly unsettling character. And he is the perfect counterpoint to Field’s genial, but often poorly executed, good intentions.
In The Darwin Affair, Tim Mason presents a novel full of atmosphere, action, suspense and memorable characters. For further insights, read the interview with Tim Mason.