Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Tim Mason has for a long time dedicated his talents to being a playwright, and has only recently made the very welcome transition to fiction novels. His first publication for adults, a historical thriller titled The Darwin Affair, takes us to 1860s London where an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria and the murder of a petty thief lead Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field on the trail of a conspiracy, somehow revolving around Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species.
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Tim Mason Presents a Victorian Conspiracy
Though today the British Royal Family might be mostly relegated to the background in terms of their prominence, it’s easy to forget there was a time when they were the supreme rulers of approximately a quarter of the entire world.
The family might have some secrets to hide today, but I would bet anything they had much greater and more shocking skeletons in their closet at the height of their power. There is honestly no shortage of subjects on which we could imagine them conspiring around, and Tim Mason makes full use of this in his second published novel, The Darwin Affair.
The plot takes us to 1860 London when an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria fails, after which a petty thief is found murdered less than a block away. While most would simply write it off as an unlikely series of events, Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field thinks otherwise, his instinct telling him the two events are connected. He begins to ponder on who the real target might have been, and just what the Crown could be hiding from him.
It doesn’t take too long for Field’s investigation to set him on a collision course with a very unlikely conspiracy, one he himself can barely believe. It would seem everything which has transpired, in one way or another, is connected to Charles Darwin’s controversial publication, On the Origin of Species. If Field’s deductions are correct, it is responsible for setting off a series of kidnappings, murders, and the hunt for a madman known only as the Chorister. As Field fumbles onward through the lethal web he found himself dropped into, the body count keeps on rising, and dark secrets meant to remain hidden are crawling their way back up to the surface.
A Modern Thriller in an Old Setting
Though this book might be classified as a work of historical fiction, in my eyes it came off much more as a thriller with a modern structure set in the past. Mason‘s career as a playwright certainly shines through in his writing, with the story constantly giving off the feeling as if it was written to be made into a movie. While personally I didn’t find this approach off-putting in the slightest, it does relegate most aspects besides the core plot to the background.
As far as the actual pursuit of the villains and unravelling of the conspiracy are concerned, I found the book held up quite strongly until the very end, where it faltered a bit but not enough to leave a lasting negative impression. We move rather quickly from one chapter to the next, following Field as he quickly analyses clues and chases the next ones.
To look into another man’s heart is difficult enough. To read the heart of a monster—if he has one—may not be possible.― Tim Mason, The Darwin Affair
There is a remarkably consistent tempo throughout virtually the whole story and we seldom witness any lulls in its progression. With the plot being as complex as it is in certain aspects, it does take a bit of brainpower on the reader’s side to keep up with how all the characters and events are interconnected, but it’s an enjoyable kind of mental exercise.
If there is one thing which I wasn’t a huge fan of, it’s the fact the core of the mystery itself was fairly simple. While the plot and how characters are linked might be complex, we are actually told who the villains are from the start, making the police’s pursuit of them a bit less exciting than it could have been. On the other hand, this does open the door for more effective character development for the villains, so it wasn’t a total loss if you ask me.
The Historical Influence in The Darwin Affair
I did say above this book came off more as a thriller than a work of historical fiction, but it doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer in the latter department. Mason without a shadow of a doubt did a whole lot of research before writing this book, and he constantly gives us various surface details about the time period, locales and people we end up visiting. He never goes into any real depth about any one subject which doesn’t have to do with the main plot and knows how to keep his facts concise and interesting.
The cast of characters is also something to behold, with more historical figures showing their faces than I could possibly name, ranging from Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin themselves to cameos by Karl Marx and Charles Dickens. None of them are developed on any sort of profound level, but are treated as secondary background characters about whom we can learn a little as Field meets them in the course of his investigation. This huge cast certainly gives rise to some humorous situations which were quite the welcome relief from the dark and gritty world Mason has plunged us into.
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Indeed, while there are definitely more lighthearted segments in the book, the cruelty of the historical context certainly hasn’t been omitted by the author. There are many dark and violent moments which aren’t for the faint of the heart, and even if they do not exactly mesh perfectly with some of the other tones set in the book, they remain memorable in their own right.
The Final Verdict
While The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason might have a couple of weak links to it, overall it’s very much an enjoyable historical thriller with a page-turner quality to it which is hard to dismiss. The author’s historical tidbits, combined with his writing stile and the fast-paced story make for a fairly unique mix in the genre, one I wholeheartedly recommend to thriller fans.
Timothy Mason is an American playwright who has written, in addition to numerous plays, the book and lyrics for the Broadway musical Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
His first published novel was The Last Synapsid, a fantasy-adventure for kids published by Random House. His first novel for adults, The Darwin Affair, was recently published by Algonquin Books.