The Piltdown Confession: A Novel

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9780312110437: The Piltdown Confession: A Novel

In 1911 an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson uncovered fossil fragments at Piltdown, Sussex, in a dig that appeared to present irrefutable proof that Man had descended from the apes. In 1953 the discovery was shown to have been a hoax.
In an amazing blend of fine historical documentation and artful fiction, this book should set to rest all questions about the Piltdown hoax. The text of "On the matter of Eoanthropus dawsoni," the reminiscences of Charles Dawson, is scrupulously annotated here and filled with maps, photos, and diagrams that demonstrate how this meek Edwardian anthropologist succeeded in making monkeys out of Darwin's most ardent advocates.
From these annotated pages emerges a darker tale, as we learn what the staid, journalistic studies of the nearly century-old hoax have never told us: about a group of Evangelical extremists who would not stop at murder to suppress support for Darwin's heretical views...about the young priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who enraged members of the Church with his belief that God had created beings that could evolve... about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose real-life sleuthings and interest in spiritualism had led him to investigate the Piltdown affair on his own. The forces of progress and faith clash dramatically in a pastoral English Eden where discovery of the Origin of Man could lead to certain death.
Was Dawson the true perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax? Only his modern-day annotator knows for sure, and his identity is perhaps the greatest hoax of all....

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From Kirkus Reviews:

This is a mildly entertaining yet ill-conceived fictional solution to one of science's great whodunits: Who perpetrated the infamous Piltdown Man hoax? The Piltdown escapade dates back to 1908 when Charles Dawson, a solicitor and amateur scientist, ``discovered'' skull fragments of an ancient humanlike creature in a gravel pit on Piltdown Common in southern England. This debut novel recounts Dawson's imaginary confession that he himself had surreptitiously planted the bones in an effort to embarrass the professional scientific community. Over the next few years Dawson and his co-conspirator, the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ``found'' several more pieces of bone that eventually yielded a nearly complete skull. The hoax succeeded beyond Dawson's wildest expectations. Eminent scientists proclaimed that the skull belonged to a new species of extinct human. It wasn't until 1954, 37 years after Dawson's death, that scientists realized the skull was a cleverly assembled hodgepodge of chimpanzee teeth, an orangutan jaw, and a modern human cranium (the actual perpetrator has never been conclusively identified, although Dawson and Teilhard are leading suspects). The narrative concerning the hoax is convincing, and it contains actual historical material. But Schwartz spices things up by including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a major character, which leads him to weave in the obligatory murder mystery. Doyle, of course, solves the murders ... la Sherlock Holmes. Predictably, evangelical Christians are the killers, and Schwartz uses this as a contrived platform for anti-fundamentalist polemics. Unfortunately, he never drops clues throughout the novel that would enable the reader to solve the crimes, and the guilty parties are introduced only a few pages before they are exposed. As murder mysteries go, it's pretty lame, and the book never lives up to its promise, despite a clever and amusing twist at the very end. (Illustrations) -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

From Publishers Weekly:

Could the greatest hoax in the history of archeology have been perpetrated by a trio of co-conspirators that, in addition to amateur geologist and natural historian Charles Dawson, included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? That's the intriguing premise behind Schwartz's first novel. Despite several engaging moments, however, the speculative story line is dragged down by inconsistent prose and the extensive use of intricate footnotes and diagrams. Narrator Dawson doctors the requisite bones and plants them in the Piltdown site, then enlists Conan Doyle and Teilhard to assist him in his ruse. Most of the action revolves around a murder plot by an insider in the fundamentalist Christian movement to expose the scam and nip in the bud the acceptance of evolutionary theory. Featuring credible and appealing characterizations of Conan Doyle and Teilhard, the novel reads smoothly when Schwartz concentrates on propelling his plot. But he seems intent on "proving" the historical links between fact and fiction through detailed documentation, a tactic that may appeal to archeology buffs but ultimately gets in the way of a good story.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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