This time her chosen author is no less imposing a figure than Darwin, and the setting Oxford and environs. The mystery involves a flock of zoologists, a great many fossil skeletons, a clutch of hundred and fifty year old marine specimens, an overenthusiastic graduate student studying artificial life and the Oxford approximation to hacking, a good deal of complicated primate mating behavior ("The courtship of animals is by no means so simple and short an affair as might be thought" --- The Descent of Man), family pride, the expression of the emotions, envy, arrogance, malice, competition, improbable links between the most disparate organisms, mutual aid, a saponaceous Victorian bishop, and the introduction of a new species of weed to Oxfordshire. As usual, the mystery is solved by Homer Kelly --- large, loud, clumsy, sympathetic, enthusiastic, and, somewhat improbably, professor of American literature, specializing in the New England transcendentalists, visiting Oxford --- with a few well-placed suggestions and kicks in the shin from his wife and fellow-professor Mary. The mystery is clever, fair, and had me, at least, pleasantly puzzled.
Dead as a Dodo is of course about the extinction of God, even so fuzzy and hard to pin down a god as that of the Kellys' transcedentalists, by the theory of evolution: " 'Perhaps someone should put him in a zoo, and mate him with some old mother goddess, in order to carry on the species Deus divinus, or Dea divina, whichever it is.' The iguanadon regarded this as a frightful lapse of taste." We not only get to see Homer encountering Darwin for the first time, but, putting together various of his enthusiastic outpourings, we get an accurate precis of The Origin of Species, complete with the one famous figure. Some would point out that God can say, with the old man in Monty Python, "I'm not dead yet"; but Langton retains a transcendentalist's optimism, as witness the closing words:
The poor farmer was thrown back on his own devices. He tried mowing the thing down, but it sprang up thicker than ever. He tried pesticides, but none of them worked. Within a couple of years Phragmites oxoniensis had swept its hideous stalks over the roadsides and riverbanks of Oxfordshire, and romped over market gardens and fields of hay.As I said, she has happy endings.
It was a classic case of natural selection, the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. The farmer wasn't happy, in fact he cursed the day he was born, but Phragmites oxoniensis didn't care whether the farmer lived or died. Unthinking, uncaring, it prospered and survived.