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The Darwin Conspiracy Hardcover – September 13, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Darwin's theories have been under attack since he first published The Origin of Species in 1859, but this grandly ambitious novel goes a few steps further to intimate that he was a fraud—and a murderer. Told by turns from three perspectives, the story opens in the present on a volcanic outcrop off the coast of Ecuador where Hugh Kellem, a British field researcher, while tracing Darwin's research path, meets Beth Dulcimer, a beautiful scientist rumored to be distantly related to Darwin. A quick shift shows an ambitious young Darwin about to embark on the Beagle. A little further on, Darwin's youngest daughter, Lizzie, enters via her journal entries, written in the 1870s, decades after Darwin's famous five-year voyage. As the three perspectives unfold, Hugh and Beth find themselves trying to solve the same mystery that intrigued Lizzie 130 years earlier: what happened on the "nuit de feu," the night that transformed the confident, robust Darwin into a haunted near-invalid for his remaining years? Stilted dialogue, perfunctory romance and expendable subplots make for a rough voyage, but Darnton (Neanderthal) puts real passion into his historical imaginings and recreations: the revelation of the "true" origin of the theory of evolution is particularly inspired and more than enough to sustain another Darntonian bestseller.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

Darnton's latest novel on scientific themes follows Hugh Kellem, an anthropologist whose study of Darwin's finches leads him to Cambridge, where, listlessly searching through Darwin's papers for a thesis topic, he stumbles upon a secret diary kept by Darwin's second daughter, Lizzie. Darnton interweaves Hugh's investigation with excerpts from Lizzie's writings and with flashbacks to Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle. Both Darwin's daughter and the modern researcher become obsessed with the twenty-two-year gestation period between the voyage and Darwin's publication of his theory. The solution to the mystery manages to be not only fussily elaborate but fundamentally simplistic, and it involves too many dark hints and convenient coincidences. Still, Darnton has a good feel for both the Victorian era and the modern scientific milieu.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 309 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400041376
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400041374
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,965,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful By D. Mikels on February 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As an award-winning reporter/journalist and bestselling novelist, John Darnton should be more than aware of this little axiom:

When penning a novel, make sure it is interesting to the reader.

Alas, there is little interesting in Darnton's latest effort. THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY is as bland as an empty ice cream cone; Darnton's historical narrative reminded me of the sports cliche "going through the motions." Nowhere--not at any time--did a character or plot jump out to grab me, or even pique my interest. As the book moved along the pages became heavier and heavier to turn.

Told from three points of view, this book has loads of potential. Two modern day historians are about to uncover a "shocking" revelation about Charles Darwin himself. . .a discovery that won't put the founder of evolution in a very favorable historical light. We also read about Darwin's voyage upon the "Beagle" in the 1830s, as young Charles must deal with a wacky ship captain and an intense scientific competitor. And finally, we are privy to the journals and letters of Darwin's daughter Lizzie; all three plots are intertwined, and it would be great if it worked, but it doesn't.

The modern day story is boring, its characters totally one-dimensional. Lizzie's contribution requires a suspension of disbelief from Pluto itself; historically depicted as "slow," this spinster daughter of Darwin's is presented here as a woman of uncanny intelligence--yet not intelligent enough to make good decisions while in the throes of passion. And Darwin's "Beagle" adventures. . .
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Harriet Klausner #1 HALL OF FAME on September 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Field anthropologist Hugh Kellem tries to solve several mysteries related to Darwin. Near Ecuador, the British researcher meets scientist Beth Dulcimer, who also seeks to understand why the famous naturalist took over twenty years to release the Origin of the Species and what happened to him that changed him from a confident scientist into a near anxious recluse.

Twentyish Darwin spends five years on the Beagle taking copious notes of what he observes on his journey and becomes increasingly confident in his abilities to do his job while a rival tries to usurp his findings. His notes serve as the basis of his classic Origin of Species by Natural Selection released in 1858. In the 1870s Darwin's youngest daughter Lizzie keeps a journal that show her growing concern about her father who seemingly over night changed from a vigorous person into a frightened shadow of himself. Hugh and Beth find Lizzie's diaries.

This interesting tale uses three points of view to tell a fictionalized account (based on known facts) of Darwin. The story opens with Hugh and Beth teaming up as both fixates over learning the mysteries of Darwin and on each other (that common obsession helps). The second (and by far the most interesting and intelligently designed) subplot follows Darwin's adventures from drinking with the Captain before leaving, to seasickness, to self-assured individual and finally struggling with a competitor. The final segue focuses on Lizzie's diary. Though well written, the present subplot seems unnecessary as it turns the life of Darwin into more of an academic mystery that includes a final shocking twist. While readers will enjoy sailing with Darwin and somewhat Lizzie's follow up in his later life, the present pales in comparison.

Harriet Klausner
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Russell A. Rohde MD on October 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The Darwin Conspiracy" by John Darnton, N.Y., Alfred A. Knopf, 2005 ISBN 1-4000-4137-6, HC 303 pg. plus 6 pg, Afterward, Ackn., Biblio. & Note. 9 1/2" x 6 1/2". 4th novel by acclaimed writer.

This elegant novel traces the life of Charles Darwin from childhood to his adventures on the "Beagle", his aging years, & spinning an entrancing story of mystery surrounding his voyage companions, his family & an attempt to define the time-line delays of two decades before publication of "The Origin of Species".

The story is told most cleverly in three voices: the passionate idyllic scholars Hugh Kellem & Beth Dulcimer: his daughter Lizzie (a.k.a. "Bessie" & Elizabeth), & Charles Darwin himself. Hugh & Beth have a titillating romance while researching for lost or archived correspondence on Darwin; Lissie secretly journals Papa Darwin's activities whilst Charles chronicles an early education, role as Beagle's Naturalist & his relationship with the crew, islanders, academic associates & family.

The read is extremely good -- suffice to say each of the 3 voices have their own affairs, trysts & difficulties but in the end there is a very satisfactory resolution of these unsettled goings on. Undoubtedly, some will be wont to obtain "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti to read "come buy our orchard fruits, come buy, come buy..." as overheard by Laura & Lizzie -- but that's another story.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Herbert T. Moskovitz on January 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton

I can't recall the last time I disliked a book so much. This report has several spoilers, so if you plan to read the book, (and I hope you don't) stop right here.

History records that the HMS Beagle's ship surgeon was responsible for collecting scientific specimens as the Beagle sailed on her charting journey. His name was Robert McCormick and Mr. Darnton draws an intense rivalry between the surgeon and young Darwin in his fictional account of the journey. But history says that McCormick left the ship in Rio de Janeiro , well before Darwin collected his specimens and notes on the Galapagos Islands.

But Mr. Darnton changes things so that McCormick is not only with Darwin on the Galapagos Islands, but it was he who first realized the truth about natural selection before Darwin. Of course, this does not sit well with the ambitious young Darwin, so in a highly improbable moment inside an erupting volcano, Darwin fails to rescue McCormick after McCormick helps Darwin escape. This is highly convenient so that Darwin alone can announce the news to the world. (There is also a plot-line that unfolds a bit later where we learn that Dawin and McCormick spoke with a tribal chieftain on Tierra del Fuego who tells them of "survival of the fittest." So according to Darnton, neither Darwin or McCormick came to the realization themselves)

History also relates how a biologist named Alfred Russel Wallace also had come up with a theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin and when Darwin found out, he graciously arranged for Wallace to make the announcement co-jointly. Darnton's treatment of Wallace's scientific abilities is even worse than his treatment of Darwin's.
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