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This is a mildly entertaining yet ill-conceived fictional solution to one of science's great whodunits: Who perpetrated the infamous Piltdown Man hoax? The Piltdown escapade dates back to 1908 when Charles Dawson, a solicitor and amateur scientist, ""discovered"" skull fragments of an ancient humanlike creature in a gravel pit on Piltdown Common in southern England. This debut novel recounts Dawson's imaginary confession that he himself had surreptitiously planted the bones in an effort to embarrass the professional scientific community. Over the next few years Dawson and his co-conspirator, the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ""found"" several more pieces of bone that eventually yielded a nearly complete skull. The hoax succeeded beyond Dawson's wildest expectations. Eminent scientists proclaimed that the skull belonged to a new species of extinct human. It wasn't until 1954, 37 years after Dawson's death, that scientists realized the skull was a cleverly assembled hodgepodge of chimpanzee teeth, an orangutan jaw, and a modern human cranium (the actual perpetrator has never been conclusively identified, although Dawson and Teilhard are leading suspects). The narrative concerning the hoax is convincing, and it contains actual historical material. But Schwartz spices things up by including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a major character, which leads him to weave in the obligatory murder mystery. Doyle, of course, solves the murders à la Sherlock Holmes. Predictably, evangelical Christians are the killers, and Schwartz uses this as a contrived platform for anti-fundamentalist polemics. Unfortunately, he never drops clues throughout the novel that would enable the reader to solve the crimes, and the guilty parties are introduced only a few pages before they are exposed. As murder mysteries go, it's pretty lame, and the book never lives up to its promise, despite a clever and amusing twist at the very end.

Pub Date: July 21st, 1994
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Wyatt/St. Martin's