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Darwin stars in a historical thriller

A graduate student seeks to uncover a dark secret about the origin of Darwin's theories

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Darwin never really goes out of fashion. Just when you think that maybe he's slipping from public view a bit, there's some kind of a trial, public hearing, or cultural disruption that shifts him and his everlastingly disputed findings back into the spotlight.

So John Darnton probably made a wise choice when he tapped the ever-controversial naturalist to serve as one of the protagonists of his new novel The Darwin Conspiracy.

This is a book that freely mixes past and present, history with fiction. It opens on a bleak island off Ecuador where Hugh Kellum, an American graduate student, studies birds in hopes of testing Darwin's theories.

But the scene soon shifts to London where Hugh, now a bit lost, is hoping to do research on "something about Darwin."

As he tells a librarian, "I'm looking around but I'm afraid I haven't really come up with anything exciting."

Just pages later, rummaging rather aimlessly through an archive, he stumbles upon the long-lost diary of Darwin's daughter Lizzie - a discovery destined to turn Darwin studies on their ear.

(This reads a bit like a scene in a Nancy Drew mystery: "And just think, it had been lying there unread [for 140 years], and he was the first person to crack it open!" Anyone who has ever actually struggled to find a thesis topic would be best advised to skip this part altogether.)

For thereon in, the narrative of the book alternates among Hugh, Lizzie (writing in her diary), and Darwin himself (voyaging on the Beagle).

The more Hugh learns about Darwin from his daughter's perspective, the more baffled he is. Some longstanding mysteries about the naturalist grow even deeper.


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