The Darwin Conspiracy
This latest work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist involves three loosely connected plots that center on the life and career of Charles Darwin. Hugh Kellem, a modern-day naturalist studying Darwin’s finches in Ecuador, discovers the lost diary of Darwin’s “forgotten” daughter Lizzie. The Hugh chapters and those written in Lizzie’s own voice portray Darwin as a reluctant celebrity tormented by a dark secret, which his closest friends work to keep through bribery and conspiracy. Conflict abounds as Hugh pursues various goals: solving the mystery of Darwin’s secret nuit de feu on Tierra del Fuego, Lizzie’s fate, the whereabouts of the second volume of her diary, and a romance with fellow scientist and Darwin descendant Beth Dulcimer.
Some of these threads are resolved rather quickly and quietly; others stretch on a bit too long to sustain interest. Darnton makes an attempt to tie his protagonist’s motivation for solving the “mystery” (itself an over-simplistic letdown) together with his search for answers about the mysterious death of his older brother, but the reader may still be left wondering why he (or we) should care so much. The device of Lizzie’s diary is a bit strained; at times it’s difficult to believe any young girl would devote so much of her diary to discussing her father, regardless of who he is. By far the best chapters are those that depict Darwin’s 1831-36 voyage on the HMS Beagle that eventually led him to formulate the theory of natural selection explained in The Origin of the Species. The secondary characters on the voyage almost upstage Darwin himself, particularly Orundellico, the native abducted from Tierra del Fuego to England. Such detailed historical reconstruction is where Darnton’s journalistic training seems to pay off the most, and where the voices, emotions and landscapes come to life most vividly.