Down a Dark River by Karen Odden — Book Review
From the desk of Syrie James
I’m always up for a good Victorian murder mystery, and I was excited to dive into Karen Odden’s Down a Dark River, the first book in her new Inspector Corravan Mystery series. It’s 1878 in London, when a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse drifts down the Thames. The victim is lovely and well-dressed, obviously a member of the upper crust. Her hands are bound, and she lies mysteriously in a bed of flower petals.
Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Michael Corravan, a canny, street-savvy, former bare-knuckles boxer and dockworker is assigned to the case. Corravan’s experience as a riverman comes in handy as he follows clue after clue, wondering if the murder could be somehow connected to another case of his—the search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate.
Before you know it, the body of a second young woman is found in similar circumstances, and then a third. Corravan correctly deduces that this is a new kind of mayhem—a series of killings from the deranged mind of one man (this is before Jack the Ripper reared his ugly head in London). The intrepid inspector must find the killer before the newspapers leak the story and send Londoners into a state of panic, and, more importantly, before another innocent victim’s life is claimed.
This was a marvelous, darkly atmospheric story filled with fascinating details about life in Victorian London. We meet the snobbish Mayfair upper classes, the hardworking folk of seedy Whitechapel and the murky docks, the worthy doctors and suffering patients at a few hospitals and lunatic asylums, and the staff of a police department that is struggling to recover from a recent corruption scandal.
The plot is clever, fast-paced, and thrilling, and kept me turning pages long into the night. The greatest strength of the novel, though, is the depth and complexity of all the characters, a feature I find is often short-changed in murder mysteries featuring male detectives. From the Chief Inspector down to the smallest side role, all of the characters feel very real and fleshed out as human beings.
Michael Corravan is a particularly worthy hero. Orphaned young, he was saved from a life on the streets by a poor but kind Irishwoman, obliged to earn his living by his fists while living in the underbelly of society, an upbringing that has made him fiercely devoted to finding truth and justice for the victims of the crimes he investigates. His relationship with his love interest, Belinda, a smart and perceptive woman, is also compellingly depicted, giving us a glimpse into Corravan’s emotional inner life and revealing both his strengths and weaknesses.
The novel is gorgeously written and infused with literary references, which I found particularly intriguing and effective. Are these allusions a clue to the killer’s agenda? You’ll have to read the novel to find out!
I’ve enjoyed all of Karen Odden’s novels and I have to say, this one is hands down my favorite. I look forward to the next book in the series.
A spellbinding, brilliantly plotted Victorian murder mystery, Karen Odden’s Down a Dark River features a fascinating and relatable detective, a cast of complex characters, powerful prose, exceptional attention to historical detail, and enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last page. Highly recommended!
5 out of 5 stars!
DOWN A DARK RIVER is available in hardcover, ebook, and audio book.
- Publisher : Crooked Lane Books (November 9, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1643858696
- ISBN-13 : 978-1643858692
USA Today bestselling novelist Karen Odden earned her PhD 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 of Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP). Her three 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 2021 grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Karen lives in Arizona with her family and her rescue beagle, Rosy. Connect with her at www.karenodden.com.
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Wow, what a fabulous review, Syrie. I am intrigued by the well-developed characters and the Victorian-era details. I must add this to my reading list. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful review. Best, LA