Darwin’s big secret, finally revealed!
It’s surprising that someone with as impressive a pedigree as the New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning reporter Darnton, who also has a respectable track record in commercial fiction (Mind Catcher, 2002, etc.), didn’t do a better job with this novel about Darwin and evolution. The story moves along several parallel lines. The first involves anthropologist Hugh Kellum and toothsome academic Beth Dulcimer, both obsessed with figuring out the central mysteries of Darwin’s life. (Why did he wait more than two decades to publish Origin of the Species? Why he was so depressed and guilty-seeming? And so on.) The second narrative follows Darwin himself as he travels on the Beagle and formulates his thesis regarding evolution. A third strand is introduced when Hugh stumbles across a secret diary kept by Darwin’s daughter Elizabeth; it helps him and Beth fill in some of the blanks in the naturalist’s life. The novel’s most riveting pages show the timid Darwin braving the seas, discovering new-found confidence on distant shores and fending off competition from a cartoonishly drawn nemesis who seeks to be the first to popularize the evolution theory. Present-day plot developments are less than enthralling, and Darnton scarcely bothers to develop his characters beyond the barest of sketches. The book bumbles along, hardly exciting but moving speedily enough, until it comes at last to the revelation of the dark secret that has lurked in Darwin’s papers…until now. Darnton’s not-quite-pulp scientific adventure has the ring of early Michael Crichton, but the final sections are just plain silly, right down to the clichéd struggle on a ledge over an active volcano.
Reduces one of history’s most important scientific discoveries to a mediocre whodunit.