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John Darnton – The Darwin Conspiracy

April 24, 2008

56. The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton (2005)

Length: 309 pages

Genre: Historical Mystery

Started: 23 April 2008
Finished: 24 April 2008

Summary: While Darwin’s theory of evolution of natural selection revolutionized the way we think about science, much of its origin remains shrouded in mystery. Darwin journeyed to South America and the Galápagos aboard the Beagle in his early 20s, but didn’t publish On the Origin of Species until almost 20 years afterwards. The question of when – and how – he came up with his famous idea has always been a matter of speculation. Until Hugh Kellem, a graduate student, unearths the hidden diary of Lizzie, one of Darwin’s daughters. It points to a horrible, dark secret in Darwin’s past, and a conspiracy to keep that secret from coming to light. The story alternates between Hugh’s story, Lizzie’s diaries, and sections of prose describing Darwin’s experiences on the Beagle.

Review: I normally read fiction for escapism – hence the prevalence of fantasy and historical fiction in my reading diet. So, imagine my surprise when the first eight pages turn out to be about mist-netting for birds – exactly what I’ve been spending my time doing recently. And, I’m pleased to say, Darnton got it pretty much right, except I don’t think most researchers use calipers to measure wing length, and holding a bird in bander’s grip, the heartbeat is much stronger against your fingers than your palm. This same level of detail and accuracy characterizes the rest of the novel as well. Darnton draws heavily on his source material, including (naturally) Darwin’s own Beagle Diaries as well as Peter Nichols’s Evolution’s Captain. The places where he invents details and conspiracies are legit, filling in the gaps without deviating from known historical fact. (Although, for the record, no graduate advisor in the world is going to take a graduate student who is tired of studying evolutionary biology and wants instead to go to England and “study something about Darwin” and tell them to go ahead and have a good time.)

As historical mysteries go, it’s a pretty good mystery. While I’d pieced together most of the major clues before the characters got there, there were bits and pieces that got added in during the revelation to the characters that helped to create a fairly tight and well-thought-out conspiracy mystery. However, there were two main problems I had with this book. The first, and more minor, was that the historical sections from Darwin’s POV seemed kind of remote, as though Darnton was afraid that he’d used up all his “fictionalization cred” on the fiction parts of the book, and didn’t want to add too much dialogue or details to the parts that are a matter of historical record. The second is that Hugh’s contemporary story, of trying to deal with/find out about his older brother’s death, seemed extraneous. If I stretched, I could probably draw some parallels between the contemporary and historical storylines, but it mostly seemed like Darnton needed something for his characters to do other than research – it either needed to be further fleshed out, or cut. Overall, though, it was a fast-paced and ingenious mystery, sufficiently entertaining without going too far out on a historical limb. Also, it didn’t even get in to the science/religious debate, instead going for the view that even if Darwin was flawed as a man, the theory stands on its own – which was much appreciated. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fun reading for biology geeks like me, and I bet it would be interesting for anyone who likes “true-fact” historical mystery, like Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time or The DaVinci Code (although with better writing!).

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First Line: Hugh spotted the boat while it was still a dot on the horizon and watched it approach the island, making a wide, white arc.


  • p. 3: “The boat appeared to be a panga, but that was odd: supplies weren’t due for days.” – boat of shallow draft, having a pointed bow and a square stern
  • p. 59: “I happened to be in his study and I picked up his cosh from its usual place on the mantelpiece.” – a blackjack; a small, easily-concealed club consisting of a leather-wrapped lead weight attached to the end of a leather-wrapped coil-spring or rigid shaft.
  • p. 65: “During a boisterous party on shore they had gone out of their way to make Charles feel uncomfortable, using seamen’s jargon to talk around him and spooking him with tales of the williwaws off Tierra del Fuego.” – a violent gust of cold wind blowing seaward from a mountainous coast, especially in the Straits of Magellan.
  • p. 75: “The stentorian words came out slowly and with feeling: “Poor, poor fellow!” he intoned happily.” – very loud or powerful in sound.
  • p. 77: “He began to rationalize – any publisher that would burn Byron’s memoirs was pusillanimous to begin with and didn’t deserve this treasure.” – lacking courage or resolution; cowardly; faint-hearted; timid.
  • p. 90: “All manner of interesting and elegant persons are drawn to his dinner table: Benthamites and Chartists and Catholics, even atheists – in short, free-thinkers of all stripes.” – The utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, holding that pleasure is the only good and that the greatest happiness for the greatest number should be the ultimate goal of humans; Chartism was a movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century between 1838 and 1848.
  • p. 94: “Upon considering it at length, I drew a connection to Papa’s many illnesses and to the pall of sickness and death that seemed to spread over our household like some cauchemar.” – French for a nightmare, or something hated.
  • p. 141: “Something happened when the ship was in South America. What it was, I do not know, but Papa writes about it in guarded but tantalising language. He refers to it as a nuit de feu.” – literally, “night of fire”. Used to mean a profound, cataclysmic spiritual experience or revelation.
  • p. 160: ““It’s about two sisters – one pure, one who gives in to the temptations of the flesh. Very Victorian. Spirituality and concupiscence, arm-in-arm…”” – a strong desire, especially sexual desire; lust.
  • p. 245: “Charles was eager to get as close as possible to a crater to bring back rock samples more intriguing than the common tuff that littered the base of the cones.” – a fragmental rock consisting of the smaller kinds of volcanic detritus, as ash or cinder, usually more or less stratified.
  • p. 247: “There was a ledge twenty feet below that contained rocks unlike any Charles had ever seen – deep, black andesite, the sort of rock the ancients must have found in Vesuvius.” – a dark-colored volcanic rock composed essentially of plagioclase feldspar and one or more mafic minerals, as hornblende or biotite.
  • p. 271: ““He believed he actually saw God. And afterward he entered a Jansenist convent and never again published under his own name.”” – the doctrinal system of Cornelis Jansen and his followers, denying free will and maintaining that human nature is corrupt and that Christ died for the elect and not for all humanity.
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