This is a book only a geologist could love. But, as noted in the editorial review by Ruth Rendell, it's "a detective story without a solution." In that sense, the book will leave you with a strong desire for closure that is not forthcoming. (The author makes that very same observation in the book.) The story, however, is rather straightforward. A renown geologist, Jacques Deprat, is accused of slipping fossil specimens from Europe into his field collections from Southeast Asia. The fossils in question are all trilobites. Now, you might say, we should be able to uncover evidence of guilt or innocence since the various outcrops are all still available for investigation. Perhaps additional work will one day resolve the problem and confirm the fossils as genuine Asian specimens. But as Osborne makes clear, the situation was and still is a bit more complicated than that. The book delves into a variety of issues such as the nature of field work, lab work, analysis and interpretation, professional integrity, the good old boy network, and the emerging theories of continental drift and plate tectonics. The social status, egos, and personalities of those involved are also probed in some detail throughout the book. I found it all very interesting and wanted more.
I discovered this book while browsing for non-fiction about the French in Indochina during colonial times. The Deprat Affair (as the author notes) provides essentially no information about the Vietnamese in French Indochina. The historical background of the French in Indochina is also barely touched on. Look elsewhere for that information. (I'm open to recommendations in that regard.) Nevertheless, Osborne does a nice job of taking this WWI era mystery and making it come to life. He includes the results of more recent investigations into the Deprat Affair, but a nice neat solution to this mystery is still not obvious. There is no clear motive. The field notes are another notable missing piece of the puzzle. Where are the field notes of Jacque Deprat? Small, sturdy, hardcover notebooks would have been an essential part of Deprat's field kit. Field notes are still important today even in the age of GPS, digital cameras, satellite photos, and laptops. Deprat did have field notes, but he never gave them to investigators or, more correctly, his accusers. It seems very unlikely that Deprat would have destroyed them.
I said that this is a book only a geologist could love, but it may be of interest to others since it illuminates the interplay of human elements in objective scientific endeavors. You could draw parallels between The Deprat Affair and more recent misunderstandings with global warming research or the various cases of fraud in clinical trials for new pharmaceuticals. I'm giving this book 5 stars because it's well written, interesting, and seems to be the only available material about this story in English. I also liked how the book touched on Carl Popper's preeminent characteristic of science: it's falsifiable... or, conversely, you can't disprove a negative. As for the book itself, it seemed a little stiff to me. Perhaps because it was printed in 2000 and has been sitting on a shelf in a warehouse for 10 years. The book is printed on heavy paper in a clear readable font. The pages in my book are a little tan around the edges just like those shown in Amazon's Look Inside feature. (The publisher probably did not use acid-free paper.) The book also contains a few pages of black and white photos on glossy paper. By the way, there are two other reviews for this book on Amazon's UK website.