Down a Dark River by Karen Odden is a historical mystery set in 1878 London. This is the first book in the Inspector Corravan series. If you’ve read my Shadowing London series, you’re going to want to stick around for this.
Down a Dark River
If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know I enjoy character-driven fiction, so I was immediately pulled into the story of Michael Corravan. Corravan is a Senior Inspector with the Metropolitan Police when a young woman’s body is discovered on a small boat on the Thames. One murder is enough, but when another body appears a week later, Corravan must race to discover the murderer before another body appears.
Let’s start with character. There is so much I love about Corravan. This is no simple man doing a gritty job. Corravan’s past is thick and complex, and what I loved about this was how Odden framed Corravan’s decisions and actions based on his past. It was as though his personal history was a lens that shaped the present character. Corravan’s past gave every action and thought a weight that left me breathless as I waited to see what Corravan would do.
But Corravan was not the only character with a checkered past. One of the most enticing things about this historical mystery is the moral ambiguity. I love it when there isn’t a black and white answer, and Odden did not disappoint. (The end left me gasping, but I won’t tell you why!) The characters Odden paints in this mystery novel are rife with contradictions, but they are all painfully realistic. London in 1878 was not a jolly time. The Metropolitan Police itself was recovering from a devastating scandal. Survival was dirty, dangerous, and crippling. The characters Odden draws from this background are so perfect, I want more.
Odden’s talent with weaving history through narrative is unparalleled. Her historical mystery, A Lady in the Smoke, was one of my top five favorite books from last year. It didn’t earn that honor by being lazy. Odden’s skill at giving the historical details that make the story come off the page instead of interrupting it with unnecessary facts is exactly what every historical fiction reader craves.
There is one scene in Down a Dark River in particular that sticks out to me. Odden mentions the bells the character in the scene is hearing down to what the bells are chiming. This tiny detail immediately set me in the scene, and it was almost as though I were hearing the bells as well. This was a detail that must have taken no small amount of research and yet it was the absolutely perfect piece to ground the reader in the moment. Simply brilliant.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve already pre-ordered the next book in this historical fiction series, Under a Veiled Moon, which releases October 11, 2022. So if you want to get caught up, check out Down a Dark River now.
Not yet convinced? Let’s chat with the author herself!
A Mini Q&A with the Amazingly Talented Karen Odden
Tell us about the title. Why is the first Inspector Corravan novel called Down a Dark River?
The Thames River in London is central to this novel, and it derives its name from “Tamesas,” which is Sanskrit (ancient Indian) for “dark river” or “dark water.” For the Victorians, the Thames River in London was at once a lifeline – bringing in food, industrial equipment, mail, and so on into the city – and yet also a sewer, where filth and dead bodies gathered. For Michael Corravan, the river was his livelihood. As a young orphan, he scrounged along its banks for coal and trinkets; then he worked in the dockyards and as a lighterman on the boats that ferried goods back and forth from the pier to the ships moored in the river.
So he’s always been near, on, in, and once – terrifyingly – under its murky waters, when he nearly drowned. But “dark river” also suggests the dark journey Inspector Corravan must make into his own past to solve this horrifying case, which begins with a young woman’s corpse in a small boat floating down the Thames.
Down a Dark River is set in 1878 London. What draws you to this time period and why? And in particular, why London during this time?
Queen Victoria was on the throne from 1837-1901, a time of profound change in nearly every aspect of life. To my mind, the most interesting decade is the 1870s, when dozens of new laws propelled rapid change for the lower and middle classes. For example, under the long-standing legal doctrine of coverture, a married woman’s legal identity was subsumed into that of her husband; in practice, this meant (among other things) that she could not own her own property. In 1870, however, the Married Women’s Property Act made it possible for the first time ever for a working woman to keep the wages she earned, rather than turning them over to her husband. This was a huge change! Similarly, in 1870, the Education Act made it mandatory for all children ages 6-12 to be in school, instead of in the mines or factories. This was profound. Literacy rates rose, and with nearly 1,000 newspapers in London, people became better informed about what their government was doing and how they could help shape the future of the nation.
As for why I chose 1878 London – well, most people think of Scotland Yard as the elite branch of the Metropolitan Police, but in October 1877, four senior inspectors were put on trial and convicted of taking bribes from a gang of con men (true history).
The trial was held publicly in the Old Bailey, the largest court building in London, and mobs of people attended to witness the scandalous proceedings. Londoners were understandably outraged by this breach of public trust by the plainclothes police, and Parliament nearly shut down the Yard altogether! But new leadership vowed to clean up the corruption, and the Yard was kept open, though reduced in size. So in the spring of 1878, when Down a Dark River begins, the trial is very fresh in people’s minds. This is especially hard for Corravan, who spent his childhood striving and scraping to earn enough money to survive. Now he has to strive and scrape to earn back public trust – that he did nothing, personally, to lose – while solving a case that threatens the safety of every young woman in London.
What surprised you when writing this book? Was it something one of the characters did or was it something you found in your research?
The Scotland Yard trial certainly surprised me. I had never heard of that scandal until I found a reference and hunted down the story!
But another thing that surprised me was the way the character of Belinda Gale became rounded out as I read journals and biographies of Victorian women. Belinda is Corravan’s love interest, and rather like your Penelope Paiget, she is a novelist and playwright who earns her living by her pen; she also has an inheritance as a safety net and is in no great haste to marry. I based her upon a cluster of Victorian women novelists that I first discovered when I was writing my dissertation – Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry Wood, and George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans) – and some other Victorian women whose journals and letters I read.
Sometimes my readers are surprised by the women in my novels; they ask if they are anachronistic, too strong or autonomous for the period. But it’s important to remember that Victorian women in novels written in the 1870s don’t necessarily reflect real Victorian women. That is, Victorian authors represented women in particular ways that may have served the purposes of their fiction – perhaps making women fragile or silly (Amelia in Vanity Fair), or anxious to be married (Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre), or cryptic villains (Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret). But these were not real Victorian women – some of whom were (against societal pressures and norms, to be sure) becoming doctors, painters, artists, writers, suffragists, performers, shopkeepers, and more. Yes, these women were outliers – but they were present. In all my novels, I want to show not only how some women were oppressed by the patriarchal society, but also how some women were able to find “wiggle room” to achieve some autonomy and social or economic power.
Your previous works all feature strong female main characters, but Down a Dark River features a male main character. Why the change? What challenges did you encounter in writing a male main character?
Several years ago, I came across a story that clawed at me and inspired Down a Dark River. I found it in a contemporary article about race and the law in the US. A young Black woman in Alabama was jaywalking across a quiet street when she was hit by a speeding car, driven by a wealthy white man who was intoxicated. She suffered terrible injuries, and when her family sued, the judge awarded her a piddly $2,000. Outraged, her father took an unusual step: he threatened the judge’s daughter. To my mind, he wanted to show the judge what it was to almost lose a child. I sat with this for a while and found myself compelled to write a book about failures of empathy and the desire for revenge.
However, in Victorian England, the judges, the police, and barristers are all men. (Women weren’t allowed into the Met Police or even onto juries until around 1920.) So I needed male characters; I couldn’t write a book with a young woman amateur sleuth, like my previous three.
To be sure Corravan’s voice sounded authentically masculine, I spent hours reading Victorian newspaper reports and police reports (all written by men, of course) out loud, to train my ear.
What are two other books or series that are similar to Inspector Corravan?
There are so many terrific books set in Victorian London! In addition to your Shadowing London series, I’d recommend Gerri Brightwell’s A Dark Lantern, a taut, suspenseful novel, and Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series.
If you enjoy historical mysteries rich with detail and rife with complex characters facing challenges of both physical and moral substance, you must check out Down a Dark River. Be sure to do so before the next book in the series drops on October 11.