Darwin stars in a historical thriller

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

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.

Why did this man who experienced such remarkable adventures in Latin American later retreat to a guarded domestic existence? Why did he wait so long to write "On the Origin of Species" and share his theories with the world?

And then, the question most troubling to Hugh: Did Darwin try to conceal help received from colleagues?

In two more amateur-sleuth type scenes, Hugh happens upon a forgotten scrap of paper tucked in an old book, and then finds a revealing drawing in Darwin's home (now a museum, but clues from Lizzie's diary lead him to a hiding place).

With the help of a love interest who turns out to have a Darwinian connection of her own, Hugh unravels both Darwin's secrets and some troubling questions in his own personal life.

Darnton had a long and prestigious career with The New York Times, serving as a foreign correspondent in both Europe and Africa and winning numerous honors including a Pulitzer Prize.

This is his third novel. His first two are "Neanderthal," about a pair of former lovers asked to examine an ancient skull found in Tajikistan and "The Experiment," a medical thriller involving human cloning.

The pages of "The Darwin Conspiracy" turn quickly and the ending is a neat surprise that - if it were true - would indeed set Darwin on his ear.

But as it is, however, the book is not burdened with too much substance. Clearly Darnton did his homework and the biographical information woven in about Darwin is interesting, but here he more nearly resembles a character in an Indiana Jones film than a man still rocking intellectual and theological boats.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Book editor.

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