DOWN A DARK RIVER: The Crooked Lane to Inspector Corravan [INTERVIEW]

Karen Odden in Bournemouth, England
“I’m in Bournemouth, England… because I got on the wrong train and ended up there instead of in London. Truly the dumb American mistake.”(Photo courtesy Karen Odden)

We love stories that can transport us to another time and place. Today’s guest, author Karen Odden, is one woman who is quite adept at doing just this. Her latest novel, Down a Dark River, takes us to Victorian London where a rash of murders is causing quite the stir. Our exclusive interview with the author is one of our most in depth pieces ever, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did! —J&H

Interview banner

J&H: Karen, welcome!

KO: Thank you! I’m delighted to be here. (Unlike my reticent and rather prickly Inspector Corravan, I like talking to the press.)

J&H: The first time we encountered your work was with your previous novel, A Trace of Deceit, which we loved. I remember when I reviewed that book, I wrote that “from the very first page, we discover Victorian London is a baffling place, simultaneously filled with brutality, vice, elegance, and style.” Those same traits seem to have crossed over to Down a Dark River as well. Why do you think the Victorian age was such a dichotomy and how has this proven important to your work?

KO: First off, I’m so glad that dichotomy comes across! It is one of the elements that anchors me in this period, which has such a rich history that I will probably never set my books during any other era. Think about it: Queen Victoria was on the throne from 1837 to 1901. During that time the British Empire advanced over new continents, and wars permanently shifted the balance of power in Europe. Railways and telegraphs connected the country in ways that reshaped people’s notion of space and time and facilitated the delivery of everything from mail to nourishing food to guns. With Reform Acts, the number of men able to vote increased by 217,000 in 1832 and by another 1,000,000 in 1867. Literacy rates rose, and the number of newspapers in London went from under 100 to nearly 1,000 in a matter of decades. Industrialization reshaped the process of manufacturing but also shifted populations from place to place. Advances in certain fields, such as technology, science, and travel, were almost unbelievable; yet London, with a population of 3.8 million in 1871, was breaking under the strain of a growing population without the infrastructure to support it. So my characters find themselves in a time of unprecedented growth and advancement and yet also of fear and anxiety because there weren’t even adequate sewers for London, much less adequate facilities and resources aboveground. The struggle for resources and power and prestige pitted rich against poor, aristocrat against the rising middle class, the English against the Irish, men against women, university-trained doctors against apprentice-trained surgeons, and so on. Victorian London was a fraught, flawed world, full of dichotomies and full of change.

J&H: Wow, we hadn’t realized just how many dichotomies there were until you outlined them like that! It sounds like London suffered some of the same problems our growing urban areas are facing even now. Besides the time period, both books have a few distinct similarities, the first being they each feature a Scotland Yard Inspector. In A Trace of Deceit we met Inspector Matthew Hallam, but in Down a Dark River you introduce us to Inspector Michael Corravan. Was it difficult to move from Hallam to Corravan, and how do you think the two men differ most?

KO: All the research I did on Scotland Yard detectives in order to craft Matthew Hallam came in handy, to be sure, when writing Michael Corravan. But Matthew comes out of the rising middle class; he is English and grew up in a corner of Mayfair, with stability in the form of a well-kept house and a father and a sister (although his mother left to pursue her dreams of being a pianist when he was very young). By contrast, Michael “Mickey” Corravan is Irish at a time when the anti-Irish feeling in London was high. He grew up on the streets in dangerous Whitechapel (where Jack the Ripper murdered his victims a decade later), and Mickey was an orphan from the time his mother vanished, when he was eleven. He turned to thieving, dock work, and bare-knuckles boxing to make a living, and was deeply grateful to be adopted by the Doyle family, who came to depend upon him. So Corravan is rougher around the edges and fiercer, and his values—such as loyalty, a determination not to be a burden, and a desire to protect and rescue others—are seared into his heart in a way they aren’t with Michael Hallam.

J&H: Hearing you describe the two, we can guess how you’ll answer our next question, but here it is anyway. Given the opportunity, which man would you most be interested in having dinner with and why?

KO: I have to admit, Corravan. I’m drawn to people whose early, painful experiences have forged what the psychologist Dan McAdams calls the “personal myth”—a set of beliefs about themselves and the world—that they need to rework and revise. In Corravan’s case, he needs to recognize that while his desire to save others serves him well as a policeman, it stems in part from wanting to always be the rescuer, so he never has to admit his own weaknesses. His love interest Belinda Gale (yes, she’s a novelist, my surrogate, I suppose!) helps him see that.

J&H: We thought so! Have you ever had the chance to visit Scotland Yard?

KO: Years ago, when I was in London, I did walk through (Old) Scotland Yard, whose address is 4 Whitehall Place. It was referred to as “Scotland Yard” because the building backs up to a cobbled yard, and royalty from Scotland used to stay in a medieval palace that once stood on that spot. It’s still rather amazing to me that I could touch the stone arch, which is still there. It’s like one of those portkeys in Harry Potter, taking me to another time. Victorian plain-clothes police touched this stone, I thought, and here I am, touching it.

Old Scotland Yard
Old Scotland Yard (Photo courtesy Karen Odden)
Karen Odden at the site of old Scotland Yard
Karen Odden at the site of old Scotland Yard (Photo courtesy Karen Odden)

J&H: That is amazing! We love coming across places like that when we travel too. Another theme that echoes in this book is the disenfranchisement of women. Obviously, this story is set at a time long before the #metoo movement. How does this topic play out in your writing?

KO: Just for a bit of context: well into the Victorian age, women’s socio-economic position was governed by the legal doctrine of “coverture.” A good working definition is this, from the legal scholar William Blackstone: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.” (Yes, the first time I read that, I was just … um … floored.)

Practically speaking, this means a married woman’s possessions belonged to her husband, including the children; she could not hold or inherit property or initiate a lawsuit on her own behalf, or even a divorce, for which she had to prove that her husband both had been unfaithful and had either beaten her or abandoned her for four years. A Victorian woman’s socio-economic dependency—first upon her father and then upon her husband—and her limited possibilities for agency certainly shaped women’s psychology. In my books, I find some “wiggle room” for my women characters—and I feel justified in doing this because there were real Victorian professional women writing novels, playing piano and composing music, and painting. Admittedly Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Fanny Dickens, Evelyn de Morgan, and others were outliers, but they were present. (In Down a Dark River, Belinda Gale’s father has astutely placed her inheritance in a non-transferrable trust, and she earns a living by her pen.)

The 1870s are my favorite decade during Queen Victoria’s reign partly because gender inequality begins to be disrupted, not just in the arena of public opinion but under the law. For example, in 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act made it possible, for the first time, for a working woman who earned a wage (in a shop or factory, say) to keep her wages rather than hand them over to her husband. Hooray! This was a significant crack in the iceberg. Similarly, the Education Act meant that all children—both boys and girls—were required to attend school from ages 6 to 12. This was huge!

This decade of change serves as a spectacular backdrop for my characters, who also change, as a result of personal lessons they learn and in response to the evolving world. In my books, I try to represent the real mores and attitudes of the period. No matter how “spunky” a heroine, there are limits to what she can do. (Conversely, the Victorians weren’t nearly as prudish as some movies would have you think!)

J&H: Why do you think it is important to discuss women’s role in society, even during the Victorian era, and do you hope your readers discover certain takeaways upon finishing the book?

KO: I think it’s important to show that no matter how one’s role is defined, most of us still have choices with respect to our values and behavior. Despite a socio-economically determined lack of agency, the women in my book are loyal to friends; they assist those who are less fortunate; and they speak their truth at some personal cost. In one scene, a maid talks to Corravan, and I show how excruciating it is both for her to speak her truth and for him to hear it – but also how powerful it is to have him believe her. I never want to write a book that preaches, but if there is any takeaway in mine, I hope it is that we need to remember the profound importance of listening with empathy and validating someone else’s experience.

J&H: This novel was set at the time when men had gentleman’s clubs to go to, where the affluent could mingle and network. What intrigued you about these places, and what disparities do you think these clubs created between both the rich and poor and men and women?

KO: Gentlemen’s clubs are fascinating to me because they enable and enforce the dichotomies you name – rich/poor, men/women. Significantly, the clubs were highly specialized and stratified among themselves. For example, the Army and Navy Club, founded in 1837, was only for the officers of those branches (women admitted 1995); the Athenaeum, founded in 1824, was for those in the professions of science, law, medicine, the arts and the Church (women admitted 2002). The Carlton Club (founded 1832) was for Tories, later known as Conservatives (women admitted 2008); and the Reform Club (founded 1836) was Whig, later Liberal, and required all members to sign a declaration agreeing to support the principles that drove the Reform Act of 1832, which extended the vote (women admitted 1981). So even among the clubs, there was a huge variety, whose distinctions mirrored those of society at large.

J&H: I mentioned that your books seem to have a “few” similarities. The third is that I find it interesting to note that neither book was written overnight. I remember reading in A Trace of Deceit that it took you 25 years to get that story down following your time working at auction houses. In Down a Dark River, you say that you began this one nine years ago. What is your writing process like, and wouldn’t your agent like to see your books published faster?

KO: I’m laughing because it does take me forever! I’m like a slow cooker – definitely not a microwave. That said, I’ve published 4 books in 5 years, which isn’t a bad rate. It just took me a long, long time to get going. And I’ve found that the process really can’t be rushed. If I start thinking about the externals – the word count or deadlines or potential reviews – all the joy and life goes out of the process. As I revised my debut A Lady in the Smoke, I nervously wondered, “Is this scene too long? What will Josh think?” I was stalling out. At last I realized, I’m asking the wrong questions. I need to be asking, “Elizabeth has just woken up in a strange bed, with the smell of lye instead of lavender on the sheets, and there are people shouting and running outside the door. How does she feel? What does she want, right now?” Sometimes, to write, I have to climb in bed with my characters.

I’ve found that my core ideas may appear in a flash, but they need to percolate for a while. For Down a Dark River, the idea began years ago when I read an article about race and the law in the U.S. A young Black woman was jaywalking across a quiet street and was hit by a car, driven by a white man who was under the influence. She was put in the hospital for months, and when her family sued, she was awarded $2,000 in damages. That’s harrowing, to be sure, but what struck me was that her understandably outraged father threatened not the judge, but the judge’s daughter. This element of the story stuck in my head. And it struck me that sometimes revenge is a last-ditch, non-verbal, desperate plea for empathy and acknowledgment – along the lines of, “I want you to stand in my shoes; but if you refuse, I will shove them on your feet.”

So I knew I wanted to write about revenge and empathy, but it took me a while to find a story that worked in a Victorian setting.

William Morrow
Crooked Lane Books

J&H: Between the publication of the two novels, you also switched publishers, going from the William Morrow imprint at HarperCollins to Crooked Lane. While it isn’t unusual for authors to switch publishers, are there advantages to making that leap and is that process difficult?

KO: This is a great question. Yes, I know dozens of writers who have switched not only publishing houses but editors and agents. When you attend conferences, sometimes the way people talk, it’s almost like we’ve been at one of those 70s key parties.

I have been lucky to have been with my agent Josh Getzler (of HG Literary in New York) since the very beginning, back when he took me on for the novel that eventually became A Lady in the Smoke. He’s flexible, astute, and knowledgeable, and he’s been a great advocate.

When I went to HarperCollins/William Morrow, I had a two-book deal. Partway through my first book, A Dangerous Duet, my editor left for her dream job at Hachette. I understood, of course; but the unfortunate result was that I was “orphaned,” as they say. My new editor is very talented, but she and I weren’t a good fit. At one point, she explicitly discouraged me from writing any more historical mysteries. So after A Trace of Deceit was published, I was dropped, and I needed a new project and a new home.

I’d begun work on DADR a few years before, so I pulled it out of its drawer and revised it, and my agent found Jessica Renheim of Crooked Lane Books, who was excited to take it on. A new relationship requires some open communication about processes and expectations, and this happened organically. As a result, my experience with CLB has been wonderful. The editors are thoughtful and responsive; first-pass pages (proofs) and advance reader copies (ARCs) appear in a timely fashion; the marketing people have found me book clubs and speaking engagements; the cover design is all I could ask for. My friend Jess Montgomery (another historical mystery author) asked me recently, “What does success look like to you?” And it may sound like I’m pathetically unambitious, but I replied, “It looks like what I have right now.”

J&H: Are there going to be other Inspector Corravan mysteries in the future? And do you think we will ever see your previous characters appear in future books?

KO: Yes, there are! I have a two-book deal with CLB, so I’m busily writing the second Corravan novel, which will be Under a Veiled Moon. While researching the history of the Thames River, I came upon the story of the Princess Alice disaster. The Princess was a smallish steamboat that made daily excursions up and down the Thames, for 2 shillings. On September 3, 1878, it was returning home by moonlight when the Bywell Castle, a huge coal ship, smashed into it and broke it into three pieces, resulting in six hundred passengers drowned. Because there was no manifest, no one knew who was on it, which only added to the tragedy, of course. True history says both ships were to blame, but the author in me thought, Hm. What if it wasn’t an accident? Who would cause such a thing, and why?

Karen Odden at her desk at home
“At my desk at home, with the disaster of a bulletin board behind me, complete with plot points on yellow stickies and my London 1870s map, signing books for the Mysterious Bookshop book club.” (Photo courtesy Karen Odden)

J&H: While researching Down a Dark River, did you make any surprising discoveries that you simply didn’t have room to incorporate into this book that fascinated you?

KO: Oh gosh, yes. So many. I had to resist the urge to shoehorn some of these fun factoids into my book because I know they don’t really belong! That’s why I did a 30-day countdown to pub day on my facebook and Instagram, featuring images of laudanum bottles and tea caddies and the Old Bailey courthouse — so I could share some of them. One interesting discovery was the number of serial murders (they called them “sequential murders”) that occurred in Europe before Jack the Ripper came on the scene in the 1880s. There were dozens! Many of them were women, who used everything from arsenic to potato mashers to kill their victims. At some point, I will need to find a place in a novel for Mrs. Potato Masher.

J&H: Karen, thank you so much for visiting with us today. We really hope you’ll come by again to chat with us in the future!

KO: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for all you do to support readers and writers! I always say bloggers are the lifeblood of the book community.

J&H: We love hearing that. Thank you! The book is Down a Dark River, and you can order it now from Jathan & Heather Books and everywhere else fine books are sold.

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Synopsis banner

In the vein of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, Karen Odden’s mystery introduces Inspector Michael Corravan as he investigates a string of vicious murders that has rocked Victorian London’s upper crust.

Crooked Lane Books

London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.

An Irish former bare-knuckles boxer and dockworker from London’s seedy East End, Corravan has good street sense and an inspector’s knack for digging up clues. But he’s confounded when, a week later, a second woman is found dead in a rowboat, and then a third. The dead women seem to have no connection whatsoever. Meanwhile, Mr. Stiles makes an alarming discovery: the shipping magnate’s missing wife, Mrs. Beckford, may not have fled her house because she was insane, as her husband claims, and Mr. Beckford may not be the successful man of business that he appears to be.

Slowly, it becomes clear that the river murders and the case of Mrs. Beckford may be linked through some terrible act of injustice in the past—for which someone has vowed a brutal vengeance. Now, with the newspapers once again trumpeting the Yard’s failures, Corravan must dredge up the truth—before London devolves into a state of panic and before the killer claims another innocent victim.

About the author banner

Karen Odden earned her Ph.D. in English from New York University and subsequently taught literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has contributed essays to numerous books and journals, written introductions for Victorian novels in the Barnes & Noble classics series and edited for the journal Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP).

Her previous novels, also set in 1870s London, have won awards for historical fiction and mystery. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and the recipient of a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Karen lives in Arizona with her family and her rescue beagle Rosy.

For more information, visit You may also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Amazon, and Goodreads.

Karen Odden
Karen Odden
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By Karen Odden
336 pp. Crooked Lane Books. $26.99.

Purchase Down a Dark River direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these other fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, Hudson Booksellers, IndieBound, Powell’s, Target, or Walmart.

Down a Dark River is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

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