The title of this wonderfully wry and absorbing novel refers not only to an act of deception, but also to the literal digging up of skulls. The plot is based on a series of real-life events in English archeological history: the 1912 discovery of Piltdown Man, thought to be an extraordinary addition to evolutionary theory; and the revelation, 40 years later, that skull fragments and other remains from the Piltdown site were faked, the result of an ingenious forgery. Readers don't have to be archeologists, however, to have a stake in this mystery, where details of fluorine tests and ape condyles are combined with intriguing glimpses into the lives of real and fictional characters, whose plausible (if often perverse) motivations create a discreetly amusing entertainment. Although parts of his plot might seem outlandish (a scene between Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde takes place in a homosexual brothel), Marks (Collector's Choice gracefully achieves the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. 20,000 first printing; $20,000 ad/promo. (August 19)
In 1953 Kenneth Oakley, paleontologist at the British Museum, shocked the world with his discovery that the prize of the museum's collection, Piltdown Man, was fake. This novel is based on the mystery of Piltdown Man. Who was guilty of the hoax that had seemed to validate British imperialist assumptions of racial and cultural superiority? Was it Arthur Smith Woodward, desiccated keeper of the Museum's Department of Geology; Charles Dawson, an exuberant amateur; or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, renegade Jesuit priest? Skullduggery unmasks the perpetrators as men driven by illicit passions and bound to each other by shameful secrets. Marks's theories intrigue, but his characters and connections lack the depth and development needed to be convincing. Not a necessary purchase. Cynthia Johnson Whealler, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, Mass.