The Darwin Affair: A Novel

Image of The Darwin Affair: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 11, 2019
Algonquin Books
Reviewed by: 

“Mason introduces myriad characters, almost too many to follow, but with a careful reading the story unfolds the underpinnings of a good plot.”

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason is set in Victorian England of the 1860s. The opening hook grabs the reader and tosses him or her into the middle of an assassination attempt of the Royals—Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The protagonist, Inspector Charles Field, a highly respected police officer, is assigned to observe the Royals and ensure their safety. He sees a scruffy man raise his hand, holding something perceived to be a weapon as the royal carriage passes. Field lunges at the man, only to find that this is a decoy, and the Royals’ safety remains in peril. Racing after the cortege, he watches as the Royals return to the safety of their castle, and upon returning to the decoy, he finds the man has been killed, his ear surgically removed.

Field is taken to task for allowing the Royals to face an unsafe event. From here the story unfolds into a tree of limbs that sometimes reaches out to nowhere, or at the very least their direction is muddled.

The basics: Charles Darwin has published his work on the Origin of the Species and created quite a stir, particularly in the religious world. His work is recognized and appreciated by Prince Albert who desires to see Darwin rewarded with royal acclaim, but those who feel their faith sorely tested will have none of that. Their goal is to assassinate not the queen, but the prince.

Enter the antagonist, Decimus Cobb, a skilled surgeon referred to as “Master” or the “Chorister.” Cobb is easily the most frightening antagonist since Hannibal Lecter. Hired first by Sir Richard Owen, Sir Jasper Arpington-Dix, and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, to carry out their assassination plan, as he moves further and further toward accomplishing his assignment he falls deeper and deeper into a mental quagmire from which there is no return.

In order to accomplish his goal, Cobb kidnaps Tom Ginty, a young teen, and begins to train the boy in the surgical ways of murder. Ginty, a butcher’s apprentice, is terrified, but agrees to be taught when Cobb threatens to do away with Tom’s mother unless he cooperates.

Cobb has established a family of sorts to help him complete his duties, and Tom reluctantly falls in step. Anyone who disagrees with Cobb disappears.

Field, in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of young Tom McGinty, begins to uncover what appear to be plans to carry out the assassination of the Royals and in the meantime, bodies begin to appear with one thing in common: a missing ear, surgically removed.

At an Oxford debate between forces pro and con regarding Darwin’s theory, Field and his team spot Tom in the company of a tall, thin man with a dark stare through shrunken eyes. As they close in, one of Field’s men is attacked and killed. Driven to find the perpetrator of this crime, Field follows an odd trail that leads him into the company of Karl Marx at one time, and Charles Dickens another.


As the story progresses, the plot unfolds, bringing fear to those who hired Cobb in the first place, because his behavior has become ever more erratic. They relieve him of his assignment, only to discover that he does not accept their decision. He refuses to believe Darwin’s theory, considers it blasphemous, and determines that the recognition planned by Prince Albert cannot go forward. The only way to stop such recognition is through the demise of the Royal.

The chase is on and crosses continents as Field is assigned to protect the Royals at all costs, and that proves to be a dicey assignment, since no one gives orders to a Royal!

It should be noted here that Mason has brought into the story a multitude of characters on both the protagonist’s side (police officers, political leaders, authors, employees, and more) and the antagonist’s side (with plots to kill anyone who gets in Cobb’s way). The conglomeration of characters at times becomes confusing, leaving the reader puzzled about the direction of the story.

While Mason’s myriad characters are almost too many to follow, a careful reading of the story unfolds the underpinnings of a good plot. Now, as confusing as the story is at times, it is the last 100 pages in which the plot unfolds in an exciting dash to save Prince Albert and bring Decimus Cobb to justice. And yet Mason does an excellent job of leaving the reader wondering if justice was really served.

The plot might have worked just as well without the appearance of Karl Marx or Charles Dickens—they lend nothing to the story; or for that matter, Charles Darwin could probably have been better treated just as a background character whose theories are the basis of the plot.

At one point, Field loses his job, takes on the role of a bartender, and discovers himself in the middle of a body-snatching plot, with recently deceased bodies being sold to students studying medicine. Regardless of such rabbit holes, if one can get through the first 200 pages of a multitude of characters moving back and forth and stretching the limits of the story, the ending is solid and will leave the reader looking back on the entire reading experience with satisfaction.