The Darwin Affair

Written by Tim Mason
Review by G. J. Berger

On a hot June day in 1860, someone shoots at Queen Victoria and Prince Albert riding in their carriage. A young pickpocket lies nearby, his throat slit. Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field, assigned to keep the royal couple from harm, had chased after the suddenly dead pickpocket—to discover he was a decoy. The shooter missed his intended target and is captured, but he too suddenly winds up dead. Field suspects a larger conspiracy.

Readers soon learn of a complex rivalry among royalty, scientists and church leaders (who admire or despise Darwin’s new work). One faction has engaged a brilliant but deranged surgeon to do the killing. After the first failed attempt, more youngsters are dragooned into the surgeon’s service, more bodies pile up, and more gentry comes under suspicion. The story unfolds at a frenetic pace as the psycho surgeon maneuvers against Field and his men for another opportunity at Prince Albert. Many chases on foot and horse and by carriage, near misses, and brutal endings that turn out to not be the end keep the pages turning.

Mason takes readers from the putrid alleys and the houses of working-class London to mansions and castles in both England and Germany. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert play interesting parts. Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens have supporting roles, as do a variety of other real-life characters of that time, even Karl Marx. Mason’s deep research, his attention to language and details of how people lived are evident. The main plot hangs together, but for some readers, Mason packs in too many unneeded scenes with too many shifts in point of view among too many actors. Less would have made for a more compelling historical thriller.