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The Darwin Affair
By Tim Mason
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Get ready for one of the most inventive and entertaining novels of 2019—an edge-of-your-seat Victorian-era thriller, where the controversial publication On the Origin of Species sets off a string of unspeakable crimes.
London, June 1860: When an assassination attempt is made on Queen Victoria, and a petty thief is gruesomely murdered moments later—and only a block away—Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field quickly surmises that the crimes are connected. Was Victoria really the assassin’s target? Or were both crimes part of an even more sinister plot?
Field’s investigation soon exposes a shocking conspiracy: the publication of Charles Darwin’s controversial On the Origin of Species has set off a string of terrible crimes—murder, arson, kidnapping. Witnesses describe a shadowy figure with lifeless, coal-black eyes. As the investigation takes Field from the dangerous alleyways of London to the hallowed halls of Oxford, the list of possible conspirators grows, and the body count escalates. And as he edges closer to the dastardly madman called the Chorister, he uncovers dark secrets that were meant to remain forever hidden.
Her Majesty disliked what she considered to be overheated homes. As a consequence, the many other occupants of the palace this chill December morning shivered as they moved from room to room going about their business. The Prince Consort himself suffered acutely from the cold; on the subject of maintaining proper fires in the scores of palace hearths, Albert's appeals to Victoria were unavailing. He rubbed his hands together, opening and clenching the fingers, trying to restore feeling as he read over the list on the desk before him yet again. The prime minister's aged first lieutenant stood waiting, suppressing a rising urge to sneeze.
"Yes," said Albert, turning the page around and sliding it across the desk toward the man from Downing Street. "This should do. Have the goodness to deliver it to the minister."
The old civil servant opened the battered attaché case used to convey messages of state to and from Downing Street. He drew the Queen's Honors List toward him, his watery eyes flicking over the names of those to be knighted in the New Year, stopping abruptly a quarter of the way down at a name that had not appeared in the prime minister's draft.
Charles Robert Darwin.
Only three weeks earlier On the Origin of Species had been published to enormous uproar. The first edition had sold out in a day; the papers were full of it. The name of Darwin was praised, ridiculed, and thunderously reviled. The man from the ministry glanced up at the Prince who stared back steadily.
"Cold, is it not?" said Albert in his clipped German accent.
"Yes indeed, sir. Quite."
Albert pushed back his chair and stood, signaling the dismissal of the man from the ministry.
A thin rain fell all the afternoon, beginning to freeze as dusk approached.
Around that hour a messenger emerged from a great house in Whitehall, adjusting his cloak and scarf against the weather as he crossed the forecourt. He mounted the waiting curricle, its horses held by a groom. The messenger settled onto his seat and pulled on his riding gloves. He flicked a whip over the horses' heads and clattered off onto the slick streets for the road to Oxford, bearing an urgent communication for the bishop.
There is scant historical record of the actions taken by a small body of like-minded men in response to the message in the courier's valise. Rumors circulated here and there for a time among members of the court of Victoria, at Oxford, and within the Metropolitan Police, whispers of a bizarre series of murders and one man's dogged pursuit of a killer. Perhaps the stories merely faded with time; perhaps they were suppressed. But history is crystal clear on one point at least: Charles Darwin never received his knighthood.
The heat moved like a feral thing through the streets, fetid and inescapable. Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field, sweating in his shiny black greatcoat, ducked into the shadowed portico of a house near St. Albans Street, just bordering the Mall. Because of the view it offered, as well as the protection from the elements, it was the spot he invariably used to monitor royal processions along this stretch. The horses pulling the royal carriage plodded solemnly, resignedly, their tails flicking at the flies. Victoria and Albert, their faces glimpsed within the open coach, had a wilted look, but they seemed to be conversing nevertheless. Today, given the heat and the mundane nature of Her Majesty's errand (she and the Prince Consort were to open a public bath in the West End), the crowd was understandably thin. But because the Queen already had survived several attempts on her life, the royal coach was accompanied by a couple of the Horse Guard. A few police constables, Field's men, walked here and there along the route, watching the spectators and licking perspiration from beneath their mustaches.
Inspector Field, his face glistening, clutched his stiff top hat behind his back. Tall, dark, and burly, he was clean-shaven, unlike most of his contemporaries, and gave the impression of not having been properly introduced to the clothing he wore. His shifting gaze touched each onlooker, one by one, and then came to rest on a skinny, threadbare figure on the curb directly before him.
I know you.
Little Stevie Patchen was an eighteen-year-old pickpocket and occasional purveyor of stolen goods. Field and his men had hauled him before the magistrates more than once. "Hatchet-Face," as Stevie was known to his intimates, was a very small fish in London's large pond of criminality, but what was he doing here among these mostly provincial sightseers? And what was he holding in a bundle of rags wrapped round his right hand?
As the royal carriage drew abreast of him, Stevie's arm rose. "Oi!" shouted Field, starting to move. "Stevie!"
The youth glanced nervously over his shoulder, saw the policeman bearing down on him, and flung away the bundle of rags. He hadn't run more than a couple of yards before Field tackled him, tumbling him and then immediately hauling him to his feet again, and frog-marching him back toward St. Albans Street. The royal carriage continued slowly on.
"Leave off!" cried Stevie. Field spun the lad around and shoved him against the railings of a grand house at No. 44 St. Albans, introducing the back of his head to the iron rods. A fine spray spurted from Stevie's nose. "Now look, I'm bleedin'!"
"It was a gun you just pitched away, was it not? Assassination? You're out of your depth, Stevie!"
"This all you got to do now you're famous, Mr. Bucket? Persecute the lowly?"
"My name is Field, not Bucket. He's a fiction, and I am a real, daylight fact, right here before you. Whatever do you have against the Queen?"
"I don't know what you're on about." Stevie wiped his bloody nose with a sleeve.
"I'll tell you what you're about, young man, you're about the hangman's rope that is someday a-waiting you, that's all. You know it, and I know it, and I'd wager your mother knew it, too, to her sorrow, as you partook the maternal refreshment."
"I beg your pardon?" said Field, danger in his voice.
Stevie's eyes darted furtively. "Think you're so bleedin' smart."
A fearful thought occurred to the inspector: I'm looking at a decoy.
"Damn," he muttered, shoving the little man from him and then abruptly running, pelting along the broad Mall, scattering pigeons as he ran. The sudden crack of a pistol shot smote him like a blow.
Oh, dear God.
Field sprinted down the dusty road, trying to make out what was happening.
He saw a confusion of blue and red and black surrounding the carriage and heard the cries of men and frightened horses. A couple of onlookers had got someone on the ground, thrashing and cursing. The horses of the Guard were rearing, and the coachman was trying to calm the steeds harnessed to the royal carriage. As Field came abreast of the entourage, he saw the Queen, flushed and wide-eyed, talking rapidly to her husband, gesturing and scanning the horror-struck crowd. And then Prince Albert's furious gaze came to rest directly on him, Inspector Field of the Detective.
Her Majesty's alive, anyway, although my own prospects are dim.
The figure on the ground was no longer struggling; a policeman sat on the man's chest while others pinioned his arms and legs.
"Kilvert!" cried Field, and one of the constables, a rail-thin, dour Welshman, appeared at his side. "You and Llewellyn see to it no other blighter in the crowd's got a bloody gun—I've got Hatchet-Face back at St. Albans with a gun or something like it."
There was a cry and the crack of a whip, and the black-and-gold carriage lurched into motion once again, making a wide arc and turning back toward the palace, its royal passengers seemingly safe after yet another assassination attempt. Field was running in roughly the same direction, back toward St. Albans, determined to find Little Stevie and wrest from him a name, a face, a description.
Stevie, however, as Charles Field, deep in his dark policeman's heart already feared, was no longer available for questioning. What Field hadn't anticipated, however, was to find him just round the corner from where he'd left him. The young man sat beneath the wrought-iron railings behind No. 44, his back against the rods and his head resting on his left shoulder. His narrow face was tilted sideways to the pitiless sky, his waistcoat scarlet and glistening, his throat sliced to the bone.
Inspector Field quickly looked up and down St. Albans Street and then knelt in the widening pool of Stevie's blood. The young man's right hand was thrust into the pocket of his trousers. Field gently pulled Stevie's arm, and the hand emerged, fist still clenched. When he prized it open, a bloodied sovereign dropped from the fingers. Field got to his feet, picking up the coin and grimacing at the sticky feel of wet at his knees and hands.
Two young constables Field didn't recognize ran toward him. One thrust the inspector against the railings and pinned him there with his truncheon.
"Whoa, now!" shouted Field. "Get your hands off!"
A liveried servant, wigless and unbuttoned, approached, carrying a toasting-fork, looking both fierce and frightened. "That's 'im!" he cried. "'E did it, I saw it all!"
"Constable," said Field, "you must be new to the Metropolitan. I am chief of detectives, do you understand me?"
The other policeman, crouching beside Stevie, looked up and said, "'He's dead all right."
"Murderer!" cried a woman from the corner. She and several others were approaching.
"I saw it all!" repeated the servant from No. 44, shrilly.
"You will release me this instant!" shouted Field. "I've work to do!"
"I believe you already done your work here, sir. You're half-covered in blood, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I was inspecting the body, idiot!" Field glanced down, following the constable's pointed gaze, and saw that not only were his knees and hands wet with gore, but his shirt front and waistcoat were speckled with a fine red spray.
"He had nosebleed, for God's sake!"
The other constable rose to his feet, and as he did so, Stevie's head fell like a lid to the right, exposing vertebrae, oozing clusters of tubes, and a gaping hole where the left ear should have been.
"Good God," murmured Field.
"Nosebleed, right, then." In less than a moment Inspector Field was roughly handcuffed to the iron fence, with the body at his feet.
Meanwhile the alarm surrounding the assassination attempt had risen, with bells sounding in the distance, horses' hooves pounding up and down the Mall, and police whistles blowing. The crowd in St. Albans, watching Field's arrest and morbidly eyeing the nearly headless figure of young Hatchet-Face, had grown. Police Constable Kilvert pushed his way through the throng.
"Josiah!" cried the inspector. "Get me clear of these fools!"
"Officers," said Kilvert, "you've made a grave mistake here. Just up from the provinces, aren't you, and soon to return at this rate."
The constables looked abashed, but the man in footman's livery was sputtering. "It weren't no mistake! I was watchin' from the winder all mornin', an' there wasn't nobody but 'im in the road—'im and the bloke 'e done for!"
"That's enough out of you, Brass Buttons, this man here is Detective Field!" Kilvert grew indignant. "Mr. Charles Dickens called him Bucket!"
"Shut up, Kilvert!" said Field.
"Inspector Bucket of the Detective!"
"Kilvert, you ass," said Field, "just get me out of this!"
As the inspector was released, there was renewed scrutiny from the crowd. It was clear that many of them had heard of Dickens' fictional detective. For a person who did not in fact exist, Mr. Bucket was quite the celebrity, and so was his model.
"I don't care who he is," cried the woman from the corner, "he's been a-murderin' the populace!"
"You there!" said Field, thrusting a large forefinger at the liveried servant. "You're going to tell me what you saw from the window, lad—that's what you're going to do."
The young man with the brass buttons, somewhat abashed by the turn of events, muttered, "You know wot I saw."
"I do not, in point of fact. I know what I saw, but I've a keen interest in your observations. Go on. You were watching, you say. You saw no one but me and the, uh—this fellow?"
"That's right. Just you and 'im, and you weren't poundin' 'im, oh no, you weren't!"
The onlookers murmured ominously.
Field put a fatherly arm round the servant's narrow shoulders, causing the young man to shudder.
"What's your name, son?"
Looking as though he wasn't eager to expand the acquaintance, he replied, "Willis."
"Right, then, Willis. You saw no one but me and . . ." He tilted his head in the direction of the corpse. "No passersby? No tradesmen? Not so much as a nurse pushin' a pram?"
"Not to mention, no. I mean, there was an old lady just now."
"How old was she, Willis?"
Willis glanced over his shoulder at the crowd and felt their support. "A hundred and twenty-six, sir."
The laughter was universal and no one seemed more pleased than Inspector Field.
"Delightful lad," he said, beaming. "So we got one crone, we got me and the dead bloke, and that's all, that's it, there ain't no more, we can all go home now, is that right, young Willis?"
Willis was beginning to enjoy the show. "That's about it, sir. Oh, there was a dog, I was forgettin' the dog."
Gusts of laughter from the crowd.
"The dog could be important, Willis, you never know," said Field, still smiling and nodding. "What was the dog doing?"
Groans now from the crowd, whose impression of the police as a bunch of sorry buffoons was being confirmed.
"Doin'?" said Willis. "Dog was doin' 'is bizness, wasn't 'e?" Laughter, tinged with scorn. "'Doin' 'is bizness an' sniffin' up the butcher's man, just like always."
"Which butcher's man was this, now, Willis?"
"Comes every second day, don't 'e? Brings a joint to No. 42." Field flicked the merest glance at Kilvert, who nodded and moved quietly through the crowd toward No. 42 St. Albans.
"I see," said Field. "Comes every other day, wheeling a barrow with a joint or a haunch, and the dogs all love him 'cause his apron's covered in blood, is that about right, Willis, my boy?"
"That's about it, sir!" cried Willis triumphantly, looking around and grinning as though he were about to take a bow. The crowd, however—or at least a number of them—had assumed more thoughtful expressions and did not look as likely to applaud as they had a moment ago.
Police Constable Sam Llewellyn, a black-haired, pink-cheeked lad from Abergavenny, arrived breathlessly. "Sir, you're wanted." Llewellyn's gaze fell on the body of Stevie Patchen. "Good Lord. Where in God's name is the blighter's left ear?"
"Well, I haven't got it, Mr. Llewellyn. Get the crowd back and have a look round. Also, Stevie threw a bundle into the bushes back there—find it."
"Yes, sir. I was sent to fetch you, sir. You're wanted at the palace." His voice dropped to an undertone. "It seems the royal family is not best pleased."
"I imagine not," muttered Field. "Thank you, Willis, you've been most entertaining." To the policemen who had arrested him, he said, "Cover the corpse decent, you lot, and wait with him till the coroner arrives. My men, Llewellyn and Kilvert, are in charge here, you answer to them."
"Where is Mr. Kilvert, sir?" said Llewellyn.
"He stepped round to No. 42. What did you make of the fellow who took the shots at Her Majesty?"
"Like the others, you mean?" said Field, and Llewellyn nodded. "But, Sam, the assassin wasn't acting alone, was he. I'm guessing Little Stevie here was set on deliberate to get me out of the way, and the gun I thought he was raising against the Queen will turn out to be a lump of coal or something like that. Come to that, if any of us had seen Hatchet-Face pointing a bundle of rags in Her Majesty's direction, he would have had our full attention, I think you'll agree. Whoever engaged Stevie promised him a sovereign if he was successful in distracting the police." Field held up the bloody coin he'd found in the corpse's pocket. "This one. Whoever did that was dressed in a butcher's bloodstained clothes and pushing a butcher's barrow. 'Meet me here, Stevie,' says the bloke, 'after you've foxed Mr. Bucket. I'll give you this shiny coin.' Which he does, and whilst Stevie stuffs it in his pocket, the butcher slices his throat. The body was supposed to go in the barrow, covered with a butcher's cloth and wheeled far away, only something interrupts the killer and he's got to make off quick, leaving Stevie where he lay."
"What about the ear?"
"Haven't a clue, have I. But I reckon Kilvert will find the kitchen at No. 42 in a state, 'cause of the usual butcher never arriving this morning. Don't you see? For the first time in all these attempts on Her Majesty's life, we've got a real live conspiracy, but instead of hunting it down, I've got to go and squander precious breath on a gaggle of court folk."
With that, Inspector Charles Field turned and strode through the staring crowd.
"Whatever has become of my hat?" he muttered under his breath. "Never mind. Too bloody hot, in any case."
Constable Kilvert found distress in the kitchen at No. 42 St. Albans, just as Inspector Field had predicted. Cook indeed had been expecting a leg of lamb and a half-dozen hens for her mistress's supper party. They were never delivered.
"Just put yourself in my place, Officer, if you will. Wot am I to do now, wiv guests expected and Mistress such a sharp 'un?"
Kilvert had a suspicion that Cook, an ample woman in her forties, was rather a "sharp 'un" herself, as her little kitchen maid's red eyes and soggy handkerchief testified.
"There, there, Cook," said Kilvert, in low, comforting tones. "Perhaps the butcher was delayed by the commotion in the Mall. He'll come by-and-by."
"I have me doubts, Officer," shrilled the woman. "The man drinks!"
"Shocking." (Kilvert was, in fact, a teetotaler; strong drink made him bilious.)
Moments later he rejoined Llewellyn at the crime scene. A wagon had drawn up to receive the corpse of Stevie Patchen, and the coroner's men were supervising the operation.
"Look at this, Josiah," said Llewellyn, showing him a crude toy gun made from two wooden blocks, nestled in a bundle of rags. "Found it in the bushes, just like Mr. Field said I would."
"He's a wonder, is Mr. Field. Any sign of the missing ear?"
Llewellyn shook his head.
"Sam," said Kilvert, "where would you go to find a drunken butcher?"
"Let me think for a moment," said his partner, as though people were forever asking him just this.
In the shimmering midday heat, the butchers' stalls of Smithfield Market reeked of flesh and blood and dung. On the street, sewage moved sluggishly through narrow channels toward open drains. Smoke rose from a dozen firepots, blurring vision, tickling the throat, and muffling the cries of those who still labored here. Recently much of the market had been shut down, following years of protest at the stench and the cruel treatment of the beasts (protest led in part by Charles Dickens). There were now more humane slaughterhouses in the northern borough of Islington. To the public, though, Smithfield remained synonymous with meat, and a contingent of the Worshipful Company of Butchers' Guild continued there, even as railway tracks were being laid near the site and construction begun on a new market. The area had resounded with the cries of men and dying cattle for nearly a thousand years; now there was the additional din of construction.
Tom Ginty, aged fourteen, butcher's apprentice, ginger-haired and freckled, blinked sweat from his eyes as he collected offal from the hog that his master, Jake Figgis, was jointing. The other butcher attached to his stall had gone off early that morning and not returned (Drunk again, said Jake), so Tom's workload was heavier than normal. But he knew how lucky he was. To have a chance of someday becoming an initiate of the Butchers' Guild was more than enviable. It was only because of his dead father having been mates with a few of the Worshipful Company that he'd been accepted as 'prentice—that, and a payment of one pound six that his mother had conjured from God knows where. Tom knew that if he were to put one foot wrong, there would be a score of lads waiting to take his place.
Which was one of the reasons he was reluctant to say anything to anyone about the man who struck him as odd.
Tom took him at first for another butcher because of the bloody apron he wore, but he didn't move right for a workingman. He seemed to glide, as though he were on skates, crossing a frozen pond. His smile seemed frozen as well, Tom thought, as he glanced up from his work and shoved his sweat-matted red hair back from his eyes.
Like he's livin' in a cool day somewheres else, but he ain't enjoyin' it, smile or no. Like he's this toff who just stepped in shit.
Tom's eyes dropped down to the man's feet.
But they weren't shoes; they were made of cloth, like a baby's bootie, only red. Or mostly red. And now the man (it's a gentleman, no mistake, the way he moves), weaving his way through the crowd, paused, stooped, and undid the strings at his ankles. When he stood and moved on, he'd left the red things behind and was wearing gleaming black leather shoes. The scraps of red cloth were quickly trod over by the shifting throng and were lost to Tom's view. The gliding man's smile remained unchanged.
He's coming this way.
Tom felt a tingle of fear. Maybe it was the fixed smile. Tom looked up at Jake, who, drenched in sweat, was still fully engaged with the hog. When Tom looked back, the gentleman was gone, vanished, lost to the ever-moving crowd of buyers and sellers.
Tom felt a huge wave of relief and wondered why.
It's the heat, i'n'it.
Something white fluttered past his line of sight. It was reflex: offal bucket in one hand, Tom put out his other and caught the flying cloth before it hit the pile of bloody rags that accumulated each day behind the butchers' stall. It was wet and red and sticky. Tom looked up in time to see the gliding man, now apronless, as he glanced back over his shoulder; in time to see the man with coal-black eyes return his stare; in time to see a frown suddenly cross the smiling face.
The gentleman, never releasing the boy from his intense gaze, smiled again, put a finger to his lips, and shook his head. Then he turned and glided on into the crowd.
Inspector Field sat gingerly on the flimsy ornate chair on which he'd been placed, hoping it wouldn't shatter beneath him. He'd been led to this gilt room in the palace by Commissioner Mayne and Sir Horace Dugdale, a member of the royal household. Sir Horace was watchful and almost entirely mute; Mayne was angry.
"A conspiracy?" said Mayne, incredulously.
"At least three in it, sir," said Field. "The shooter, the decoy, and whoever set it up and topped the decoy."
"I have talked to the shooter, or tried. He's raving, the man could not conspire to do up his boots!"
"Even if he is insane, that don't mean he acted alone!" Field, easily angered, checked his rising heat and lowered his voice. "He might have been recruited because he was off."
That Detective Inspector Charles Frederick Field should find himself in Buckingham Palace, even to receive a dressing down, was something of a miracle. The son of a sometime publican in Chelsea, Field had nourished high ambitions as a boy—but they did not lie in this direction. There were few people on earth apart from his wife who knew that, as a young man, Charles Field had wanted more than anything to be an actor. A life on the stage would be his escape from the sour brutality of his parental home.
In pursuit of his passion, Field had committed to memory long stretches of Shakespeare. He created disguises for himself and went out in public as a whole gallery of characters. He adopted alien accents and strange walks. A beloved sister, long since dead of typhoid fever, used to fashion his costumes late at night when her own work was done. Young Charles Field went out as rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief.
“London in 1860 is the principal setting of Tim Mason’s The Darwin Affair, which evokes the pleasures of such period authors as Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. [A] memorable page-turner. Intellectually stimulating and viscerally exciting, The Darwin Affair is breathtaking from start to stop.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A perfect addition to your summer reading list. Fast-paced and lively, this page-turner would appeal to fans of Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”
“An audacious historical thriller . . . The intelligent plot features prominent figures of the time, including Karl Marx . . . and Charles Darwin, whose heretical theory of evolution has unsettled some very powerful men. Wry prose and vivid period detail help make Mason’s speculations feel plausible.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.”
“Mason’s Dickensian London, layered with gritty, horror-tinged period details and the imaginative interweaving of Typhoid Mary and the underworld’s grave-robbing industry, provides a rare time-traveling experience for historical-mystery readers. The novel shares the edgy appeal of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy.”
—Booklist, starred review
“While readers cheer for Inspector Field, a true-life detective and friend of Charles Dickens, they will inadvertently learn a smattering of history—and enjoy every second of it. Author Tim Mason makes it fun. He writes with authenticity and knows precisely how to keep his audience on the edge of their seats. Oh, and just when you believe he’s about to wrap it up, get comfortable, because he has a whole lot more action in store.”
“With many grisly murders and many shocking surprises along the way, the book rockets toward a last dark twist. Careful research, a driving plot, wry wit, and compelling characters make this a most entertaining read.”
“Set in Victorian era London, Tim Mason’s The Darwin Affair is a fantastic and original historical thriller. In fact, this is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years.”
“The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason . . . set in Victorian England of the 1860s . . . grabs the reader and tosses him or her into the middle of an assassination attempt of the Royals—Queen Victoria and Prince Albert . . . [T]he plot unfolds in an exciting dash to save Prince Albert, and bring Decimus Cobb . . . easily the most frightening antagonist since Hannibal Lecter . . . to justice.”
—New York Journal of Books
“This clever, yeasty detective yarn is like a runaway hansom cab that pauses just long enough to take on passengers ranging from Darwin to Dickens before hurtling onward. It's a grand ride, a serious education and a delightful addiction.”
—Louis Bayard, author of Courting Mr. Lincoln
“An engaging historic mystery.”
“It’s London 1860, and an assassination attempt has been made on Queen Vict
- On Sale
- Jun 23, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Algonquin Books