In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and geologist, discovered in a gravel pit at Berkham Manor on Piltdown Common near Lewes in Sussex, England, fossilized remains of thick fragments of a human skull, an apelike jawbone with two teeth, hippopotamus and elephant teeth, some flint tools, and a bone implement. This discovery, which aroused great interest in the scientific community, was ultimately exposed as a fraud; Marks’s novel focuses on who perpetrated the forgery and why. The author takes the reader into Victorian and Edwardian England and presents the underbelly of English life, in which everyone has something to hide: Lust, politics, and fear play larger roles in determining scientific advancement than the pure desire for knowledge. Charles Dawson is driven by the love of another man’s wife. Dawson blackmails his partner, Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum, into compliance with his scheme, and Woodward also gets caught up in the notoriety the discovery brings. Among the other historical figures who make appearances are Edmund Backhouse, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Oscar Wilde. Also, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin plays a role in assisting Dawson and Woodward at a second dig sight.
The novel starts with Kenneth Oakley making his fluorine tests on the Piltdown man specimens in 1953; his conclusions were that the skull did not originate from the Pleistocene period and the jaw was that of an orangutan. Before the concluding chapter brings the reader back to the 1950’s, Marks ingeniously has Conan Doyle make a Holmesian conclusion to the puzzling mystery. The author creates a believable world of scientific intrigue with wit and verve, and gives the reader a masterful story about a great scientific hoax.