THE DARWIN AFFAIR
Get ready for one of the most inventive and entertaining novels of 2019—an edge-of-your-seat Victorian-era thriller, where the controversial publication On the Origin of Species sets off a string of unspeakable crimes.
London, June 1860: When an assassination attempt is made on Queen Victoria, and a petty thief is gruesomely murdered moments later—and only a block away—Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field quickly surmises that these crimes are connected to an even more sinister plot. Was Victoria really the assassin’s target? Are those closest to the Crown hiding something? And who is the shadowy figure witnesses describe as having lifeless,
Get ready for one of the most inventive and entertaining novels of 2019—an edge-of-your-seat Victorian-era thriller, where the controversial publication On the Origin of Species sets off a string of unspeakable crimes.
London, June 1860: When an assassination attempt is made on Queen Victoria, and a petty thief is gruesomely murdered moments later—and only a block away—Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field quickly surmises that these crimes are connected to an even more sinister plot. Was Victoria really the assassin’s target? Are those closest to the Crown hiding something? And who is the shadowy figure witnesses describe as having lifeless, coal-black eyes?
Soon, Field’s investigation exposes a shocking conspiracy in which the publication of Charles Darwin’s controversial On the Origin of Species sets off a string of murders, arson, kidnapping, and the pursuit of a madman named the Chorister. As the investigation takes Field from the dangerous alleyways of London to the hallowed halls of Oxford, the list of possible conspirators grows, and the body count escalates. And as he edges closer to the Chorister, he uncovers dark secrets that were meant to remain forever hidden.
Tim Mason has created a rousing page-turner that both Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would relish and envy.
- June 2019
- 384 Pages
“An audacious historical thriller . . . The intelligent plot features prominent figures of the time, including Karl Marx . . . and Charles Darwin, whose heretical theory of evolution has unsettled some very powerful men. Wry prose and vivid period detail help make Mason’s speculations feel plausible.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Mason’s Dickensian London, layered with gritty, horror-tinged period details and the imaginative interweaving of Typhoid Mary and the underworld’s grave-robbing industry, provides a rare time-traveling experience for historical-mystery readers. The novel shares the edgy appeal of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy.” —Booklist, starred review
“With many grisly murders and many shocking surprises along the way, the book rockets toward a last dark twist. Careful research, a driving plot, wry wit, and compelling characters make this a most entertaining read.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This clever, yeasty detective yarn is like a runaway hansom cab that pauses just long enough to take on passengers ranging from Darwin to Dickens before hurtling onward. It’s a grand ride, a serious education and a delightful addiction.” —Louis Bayard, author of Courting Mr. Lincoln
1. In his 1852 novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens created a detective called Inspector Bucket who was widely thought to be based on Charles Field, a historical London policeman. The fictional Charles Field in The Darwin Affair seems plagued by the fame thrust upon him by Dickens. In what ways might celebrity have become a burden for Field? For anyone?
2. The reactions to the initial publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species ranged from vehement condemnation to the highest praise. Is it surprising that there was not universal condemnation of it in 1859, but some acceptance, even among prominent churchmen? We’ve now lived with the theory of evolution for 160 years, and it is accepted by a vast majority of scientists as fact. Is it surprising that Darwin’s findings still provoke outrage? Why might this be so?
3. Inspector Charles Field and his wife, Jane Field, often address each other in conversation as Mr. and Mrs.; this was a Victorian convention. But their relationship isn’t defined by the seeming formality of their address. How would you describe the relationship?
4. There have been many recent film and television depictions of Queen Victoria and Albert, the Prince Consort. How do these square with the relationship as described in The Darwin Affair? How would you describe the marriage of these two very different people?
5. On the opposite end of the social scale from the royal family is Tom Ginty, butcher’s apprentice. He’s snatched and put in a box. How does this affect the chemistry of the story? How does his mother deal with his disappearance? How do you?
6. The author has included many historical persons in the novel, from Victoria and Albert, to Karl Marx and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, to Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Sir Richard Owen was also a historical person, and although he did not really conspire to assassinate anyone, he was notorious for his malice and a propensity to claim the ideas of others as his own. How do you feel about using real-life persons from history in this manner? Is it fair for an author to do this? What liberties may, or may not, be taken?
7. In June of 1860 Karl Marx was indeed suffering from liver pains, as his character complains in the book. Tim Mason learned this fact by reading Marx’s letters while doing research for this novel; he also read some of Queen Victoria’s letters. How else might a novelist seek to learn day-to-day details from a historical subject’s past?
8. Decimus Cobb is a complex character, to put it mildly. More than one critic has compared him to Hannibal Lecter of Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. Is he a monster? The fictional Charles Darwin says to Field, “I disbelieve in monsters. But I have found ordinary nature to be insupportably cruel, often enough.” What emotions does Decimus evoke? Fear? Revulsion? Curiosity?
9. The world’s response to the work of Darwin was echoed on an intimate scale by the relationship between Charles and his beloved wife, Emma. His masterwork became her sorrow, and yet they remained a steadfast, loving couple, and devoted parents to their many children. Are there clues in The Darwin Aff air as to how they navigated these complexities?
10. We glimpse another complex relationship in the love aff air between the young Oxford undergraduates David Gates and Jack Callow. The term homosexuality did not come into existence until about forty years after the time period of the book, nor did the concept exist as we think of it today. Can you speculate on how these two might have defined their relationship?
From The Darwin Affair
by Tim Mason
The heat moved like a feral thing through the streets, fetid and inescapable. Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field, sweating in his shiny black greatcoat, ducked into the shadowed portico of a house near St. Albans Street, just bordering the Mall. Because of the view it offered, as well as the protection from the elements, it was the spot he invariably used to monitor royal processions along this stretch. The horses pulling the royal carriage plodded solemnly, resignedly, their tails flicking at the flies. Victoria and Albert, their faces glimpsed within the open coach, had a wilted look, but they seemed to be conversing nevertheless. Today, given the heat and the mundane nature of Her Majesty’s errand (she and the Prince Consort were to open a public bath in the West End), the crowd was understandably thin. But because the Queen already had survived several attempts on her life, the royal coach was accompanied by a couple of the Horse Guard. A few police constables, Field’s men, walked here and there along the route, watching the spectators and licking perspiration from beneath their mustaches.
Inspector Field, his face glistening, clutched his stiff top hat behind his back. Tall, dark, and burly, he was clean-shaven, unlike most of his contemporaries, and gave the impression of not having been properly introduced to the clothing he wore. His shifting gaze touched each onlooker, one by one, and then came to rest on a skinny, threadbare figure on the curb directly before him.
I know you.
Little Stevie Patchen was an eighteen-year-old pickpocket and occasional purveyor of stolen goods. Field and his men had hauled him before the magistrates more than once. “Hatchet-Face,” as Stevie was known to his intimates, was a very small fish in London’s large pond of criminality, but what was he doing here among these mostly provincial sightseers? And what was he holding in a bundle of rags wrapped round his right hand?
As the royal carriage drew abreast of him, Stevie’s arm rose. “Oi!” shouted Field, starting to move. “Stevie!”
The youth glanced nervously over his shoulder, saw the policeman bearing down on him, and flung away the bundle of rags. He hadn’t run more than a couple of yards before Field tackled him, tumbling him and then immediately hauling him to his feet again, and frog-marching him back toward St. Albans Street. The royal carriage continued slowly on.
“Leave off!” cried Stevie. Field spun the lad around and shoved him against the railings of a grand house at No. 44 St. Albans, introducing the back of his head to the iron rods. A fine spray spurted from Stevie’s nose. “Now look, I’m bleedin’!”
“It was a gun you just pitched away, was it not? Assassination? You’re out of your depth, Stevie!”
“This all you got to do now you’re famous, Mr. Bucket? Persecute the lowly?”
“My name is Field, not Bucket. He’s a fiction, and I am a real, daylight fact, right here before you. Whatever do you have against the Queen?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about.” Stevie wiped his bloody nose with a sleeve.
“I’ll tell you what you’re about, young man, you’re about the hangman’s rope that is someday a-waiting you, that’s all. You know it, and I know it, and I’d wager your mother knew it, too, to her sorrow, as you partook the maternal refreshment.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Field, danger in his voice.
Stevie’s eyes darted furtively. “Think you’re so bleedin’ smart.”
A fearful thought occurred to the inspector: I’m looking at a decoy.
“Damn,” he muttered, shoving the little man from him and then abruptly running, pelting along the broad Mall, scattering pigeons as he ran. The sudden crack of a pistol shot smote him like a blow.
Oh, dear God.
Field sprinted down the dusty road, trying to make out what was happening.
He saw a confusion of blue and red and black surrounding the carriage and heard the cries of men and frightened horses. A couple of onlookers had got someone on the ground, thrashing and cursing. The horses of the Guard were rearing, and the coachman was trying to calm the steeds harnessed to the royal carriage. As Field came abreast of the entourage, he saw the Queen, flushed and wide-eyed, talking rapidly to her husband, gesturing and scanning the horror-struck crowd. And then Prince Albert’s furious gaze came to rest directly on him, Inspector Field of the Detective.
Her Majesty’s alive, anyway, although my own prospects are dim.
The figure on the ground was no longer struggling; a policeman sat on the man’s chest while others pinioned his arms and legs.
“Kilvert!” cried Field, and one of the constables, a rail-thin, dour Welshman, appeared at his side. “You and Llewellyn see to it no other blighter in the crowd’s got a bloody gun—I’ve got Hatchet-Face back at St. Albans with a gun or something like it.”
There was a cry and the crack of a whip, and the black-and-gold carriage lurched into motion once again, making a wide arc and turning back toward the palace, its royal passengers seemingly safe after yet another assassination attempt. Field was running in roughly the same direction, back toward St. Albans, determined to find Little Stevie and wrest from him a name, a face, a description.
Stevie, however, as Charles Field, deep in his dark policeman’s heart already feared, was no longer available for questioning. What Field hadn’t anticipated, however, was to find him just round the corner from where he’d left him. The young man sat beneath the wrought-iron railings behind No. 44, his back against the rods and his head resting on his left shoulder. His narrow face was tilted sideways to the pitiless sky, his waistcoat scarlet and glistening, his throat sliced to the bone.
Inspector Field quickly looked up and down St. Albans Street and then knelt in the widening pool of Stevie’s blood. The young man’s right hand was thrust into the pocket of his trousers. Field gently pulled Stevie’s arm, and the hand emerged, fist still clenched. When he prized it open, a bloodied sovereign dropped from the fingers. Field got to his feet, picking up the coin and grimacing at the sticky feel of wet at his knees and hands.
Two young constables Field didn’t recognize ran toward him. One thrust the inspector against the railings and pinned him there with his truncheon.
“Whoa, now!” shouted Field. “Get your hands off!”
A liveried servant, wigless and unbuttoned, approached, carrying a toasting-fork, looking both fierce and frightened. “That’s ’im!” he cried. “’E did it, I saw it all!”
“Constable,” said Field, “you must be new to the Metropolitan. I am chief of detectives, do you understand me?”
The other policeman, crouching beside Stevie, looked up and said, “He’s dead all right.”
“Murderer!” cried a woman from the corner. She and several others were approaching.
“I saw it all!” repeated the servant from No. 44, shrilly.
“You will release me this instant!” shouted Field. “I’ve work to do!”
“I believe you already done your work here, sir. You’re half-covered in blood, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I was inspecting the body, idiot!” Field glanced down, following the constable’s pointed gaze, and saw that not only were his knees and hands wet with gore, but his shirt front and waistcoat were speckled with a fine red spray.
“He had nosebleed, for God’s sake!”
The other constable rose to his feet, and as he did so, Stevie’s head fell like a lid to the right, exposing vertebrae, oozing clusters of tubes, and a gaping hole where the left ear should have been.
“Good God,” murmured Field.
“Nosebleed, right, then.” In less than a moment Inspector Field was roughly handcuffed to the iron fence, with the body at his feet.
Meanwhile the alarm surrounding the assassination attempt had risen, with bells sounding in the distance, horses’ hooves pounding up and down the Mall, and police whistles blowing. The crowd in St. Albans, watching Field’s arrest and morbidly eyeing the nearly headless figure of young Hatchet-Face, had grown. Police Constable Kilvert pushed his way through the throng.
“Josiah!” cried the inspector. “Get me clear of these fools!”
“Officers,” said Kilvert, “you’ve made a grave mistake here. Just up from the provinces, aren’t you, and soon to return at this rate.”
The constables looked abashed, but the man in footman’s livery was sputtering. “It weren’t no mistake! I was watchin’ from the winder all mornin’, an’ there wasn’t nobody but ’im in the road—’im and the bloke ’e done for!”
“That’s enough out of you, Brass Buttons, this man here is Detective Field!” Kilvert grew indignant. “Mr. Charles Dickens called him Bucket!”
“Shut up, Kilvert!” said Field.
“Inspector Bucket of the Detective!”
“Kilvert, you ass,” said Field, “just get me out of this!”
As the inspector was released, there was renewed scrutiny from the crowd. It was clear that many of them had heard of Dickens’s fictional detective. For a person who did not in fact exist, Mr. Bucket was quite the celebrity, and so was his model.
“I don’t care who he is,” cried the woman from the corner, “he’s been a-murderin’ the populace!”
“You there!” said Field, thrusting a large forefinger at the liveried servant. “You’re going to tell me what you saw from the window, lad—that’s what you’re going to do.”
The young man with the brass buttons, somewhat abashed by the turn of events, muttered, “You know wot I saw.”
“I do not, in point of fact. I know what I saw, but I’ve a keen interest in your observations. Go on. You were watching, you say. You saw no one but me and the, uh—this fellow?”
“That’s right. Just you and ’im, and you weren’t poundin’ ’im, oh no, you weren’t!”
The onlookers murmured ominously.
Field put a fatherly arm round the servant’s narrow shoulders, causing the young man to shudder.
“What’s your name, son?”
Looking as though he wasn’t eager to expand the acquaintance, he replied, “Willis.”
“Right, then, Willis. You saw no one but me and . . .” He tilted his head in the direction of the corpse. “No passersby? No tradesmen? Not so much as a nurse pushin’ a pram?”
“Not to mention, no. I mean, there was an old lady just now.”
“How old was she, Willis?”
Willis glanced over his shoulder at the crowd and felt their support. “A hundred and twenty-six, sir.”
The laughter was universal and no one seemed more pleased than Inspector Field.
“Delightful lad,” he said, beaming. “So we got one crone, we got me and the dead bloke, and that’s all, that’s it, there ain’t no more, we can all go home now, is that right, young Willis?”
Willis was beginning to enjoy the show. “That’s about it, sir. Oh, there was a dog, I was forgettin’ the dog.”
Gusts of laughter from the crowd.
“The dog could be important, Willis, you never know,” said Field, still smiling and nodding. “What was the dog doing?”
Groans now from the crowd, whose impression of the police as a bunch of sorry buffoons was being confirmed.
“Doin’?” said Willis. “Dog was doin’ ’is bizness, wasn’t ’e?” Laughter, tinged with scorn. “Doin’ ’is bizness an’ sniffin’ up the butcher’s man, just like always.”
“Which butcher’s man was this, now, Willis?”
“Comes every second day, don’t ’e? Brings a joint to No. 42.” Field flicked the merest glance at Kilvert, who nodded and moved quietly through the crowd toward No. 42 St. Albans.
“I see,” said Field. “Comes every other day, wheeling a barrow with a joint or a haunch, and the dogs all love him ’cause his apron’s covered in blood, is that about right, Willis, my boy?”
“That’s about it, sir!” cried Willis triumphantly, looking around and grinning as though he were about to take a bow. The crowd, however—or at least a number of them—had assumed more thoughtful expressions and did not look as likely to applaud as they had a moment ago.
Police Constable Sam Llewellyn, a black-haired, pink-cheeked lad from Abergavenny, arrived breathlessly. “Sir, you’re wanted.” Llewellyn’s gaze fell on the body of Stevie Patchen. “Good Lord. Where in God’s name is the blighter’s left ear?”
“Well, I haven’t got it, Mr. Llewellyn. Get the crowd back and have a look round. Also, Stevie threw a bundle into the bushes back there—find it.”
“Yes, sir. I was sent to fetch you, sir. You’re wanted at the palace.” His voice dropped to an undertone. “It seems the royal family is not best pleased.”
by Tim Mason
I moved to New York City in 1980, immediately following the unexpected end of a long-term relationship. Suddenly I was on my own, and more than a little lost. What would I do? How would I make a living? How would I make a life?
One afternoon I walked into a bookstore. I searched the shelves for something that might offer comfort, and maybe even some firm ground on which to stand. Nothing contemporary; my day-to-day struggles as a newcomer to New York were all I needed of contemporary life, and then some. I took down a classic: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
The young woman at the counter took the book from me, smiled, and looked up. “If you’ve got Dickens in your life,” she said, “you never need to be lonely.”
Where had she gotten such wisdom?
Dickens’s novels and characters have been companions for me through thick and thin ever since. This book comes from one of them, in a sense. More specifically, The Darwin Affair comes from Mr. Bucket.
Inspector Bucket is the private investigator who darts here and there across the landscape of Bleak House. If he has a first name, I’ve never heard it. Perhaps his fictional parents didn’t think one necessary; perhaps he didn’t have parents; perhaps he just appeared. Throughout the book, Bucket doesn’t enter rooms, he materializes in them. He’s the sly, manipulative intelligence who gets people’s cooperation without their knowing it. He is one of the first-ever fictional detectives, and he came to haunt me in the best way.
In the years following my move to New York, I was busy writing plays, and making a modest name for myself as an off-Broadway playwright with the late, great Circle Repertory Company. (I did make non-fictional, non-Dickensian friends and collaborators along the way, I’m happy to say.) But wouldn’t it be fun, I always thought, to write a novel in which Bucket was the main character instead of a member of the supporting cast? However, the story that slowly gathered around him in my mind involved actual historical characters, and that posed difficulties.
My late father was a Lutheran minister, and the most devout person I’ve ever known. And Dad loved Charles Darwin. He read and reread his works. He wrote and self-published two books himself, in which he argued that religious faith was not necessarily antithetical to a fervent embrace of all that science offers, including evolution. Evolution and cosmology were big topics in my father’s universe. It didn’t come as a shock to me, then, that the story growing bit by bit around Mr. Bucket should involve Darwin, and a violent attempt to suppress his influence.
To mix historical figures (Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Thomas Huxley, Bishop Wilberforce) with a fictional one like Bucket wouldn’t work. But eventually I discovered that Mr. Bucket had a real-life counterpart. Dickens always denied his fictional character was modeled after a very real London police detective, Charles Frederick Field, but it’s almost certain he was. This discovery gave me permission to proceed. I wanted my book to be as historically accurate as possible. I would insert my fiction into the interstices.
If you spend time with Dickens, you find that while he is entertaining, he actually is not comforting. He is profoundly angry. Just beneath his improbable coincidences and exaggerated sentiment is a trembling rage: rage against hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and greed. That Dickens escaped the poverty and delusional cant of his bleak childhood doesn’t mean he ever lost sight of the multitudes that did not. Instead, for all his personal faults, he became a nineteenth-century activist, working energetically, almost ubiquitously, to raise issues and funds, to make societal change, and to give a voice to the voiceless. A Christmas Carol may be a beloved holiday classic, but it is anger that infuses the story. From the voluminous robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present come two ragged children, a boy and a girl. The boy is named Ignorance; the girl, Want. There’s no excuse for either of them existing in such a bountiful society, but there they are. In the present. And the Ghost warns, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy . . .” Dickens might as well have been writing about our own twenty-first-century present.
In The Darwin Affair, Inspector Field comes to realize that the attempts to diminish and dismiss the theories of Charles Darwin are vitally important to those in the upper echelons of commerce and society, as a means of clinging to wealth and power. The universal equality that is implied by On the Origin of Species is a death knell to dominance and empire. To maintain the upper hand, ignorance and poverty are essential.
Of course, my fictional version of Dickens’s fictional version of Inspector Charles Field doesn’t think Dickens got it right at all. It’s not a bit like me! he complains to his wife. But I’ve grown quite fond of my own Inspector Field in the years it took me to write this novel. He has become very like a friend. As have his friends. Thereby proving how right the young woman at the bookstore was, all those years ago.
If you’ve got Dickens in your life, you never need to be lonely. She might have added, Keep an eye out for two ragged children. They’re bound to turn up.