“The Darwin Affair” Book Review

This historical fiction novel by Tim Mason has all of the makings of a great read. There’s a heroic cop dead-set on solving a mysterious string of murders in 1860’s England. There’s a band of homicidal freaks led by one seriously creepy ‘master.’ There are a slew of famous characters (everyone from Queen Victoria to Charles Dickens) that pop up to add historical flair. And it’s all set off by the blasphemous Charles Darwin book “Origin of the Species,” which created a frenzy of talk about evolution (and is the catalyst for the murders). So, what held this novel back from being an all-out compelling, suspenseful read?

My main complaint was that Mason switched between characters and their perspectives way too abruptly and often in points in the story where it made little sense. This created a lack of cohesion that made it difficult to follow the through-line of the plot. While there were some insanely creative and fascinating characters (including a pub owner who uses his establishment to run a corpse-selling operation and a deadly little girl who tends to pass typhoid to everyone around her), spending too much time on tons of characters left little time for the ones I actually wanted to read about. Because of the issue with the POVs, the structure of the novel felt off – it starts off with a great beginning featuring an assassination attempt on the Queen’s life and the subsequent murder of her would-be assassin. But then the story tended to drag along through the middle with various murders that were hard to tell how they were linked back.

I think Mason obviously did quite a bit of research to effectively create the time period. There were plenty of accurate details that made the story feel authentic. However, it also felt like Mason wanted to show off his research in some parts – there would be whole paragraphs of exposition and stating historical facts. I get that he wanted to provide context, but it felt like all of a sudden, the story would switch from a thrilling mystery to a history textbook. These bits of info should have been better woven into the plot so they wouldn’t have stuck out so much.

There were some great moments of intrigue and I really liked how everything was wrapped up nicely in the end. But there were quite a few gruesome and violent moments, so this one is definitely not for the weak-stomached. Fans of this time period in history might enjoy this book, but the meandering plot and POV-overload wouldn’t convince me to rush out and recommend this.

3 stars

*Free ARC provided by Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest review *

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