Monday, January 30, 2012
A Rum Affair by Karl Sabbagh
Who would have guessed that the world of academic botany was such a seething cauldron of intrigue?
Karl Sabbagh, his interest sparked by an unusual line in an obituary for the noted botanist John Heslop Harrison, starts a quiet investigation of the man in order to assuage his own curiosity. What he finds shocks him: an unpublished report of an investigation into Heslop Harrison's findings, complete with allegations of fraud. In other words, some of the rare plants Heslop Harrison discovered on the Scottish island of Rum showed evidence of having been planted for the sole purpose of being "discovered."
The book is a careful, quiet account of Sabbagh's research into the allegations. He looks at the main players in detail, Heslop Harrison himself and his accuser, amateur botanist John Raven, and at the atmosphere of the time, early to mid 20th century Britain. It's not a bombastic book at all; rather, it's filled with a low-key wit.
While it's readable and interesting, it's not exactly riveting. It would have been easy to put the book down and never pick it back up. I'm glad I didn't, though.