Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review: DOWN A DARK RIVER by Karen Odden

Any novel that quoted Victorian poet Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" would be a favorite of mine, but when one of the victims in Karen Odden's just-released mystery DOWN A DARK RIVER (Crooked Lane) offers the poet's famous admonition--"Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world /... / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain"-- as a message of hope, it's icing on an already delectable cake. Odden's fourth novel, the first installment of her new Inspector Corravan series, links matter and message together so profoundly readers will find themselves musing on the fundamental questions the novel poses long after they close the cover on this thoroughly satisfying read.

An expert in Victorian literature and culture, Odden conjures a vividly convincing setting populated with memorable characters that reverberate with historical and psychological authenticity. An emotionally scarred Irishman who grew up on the docks in the seedy Whitechapel district of London, protagonist Michael Corravan has traded the boxing ring for the neighborhood precinct. He now works for Scotland Yard at a time when the agency is under intense scrutiny for corruption. When a dead young woman in a ball gown is discovered floating down the Thames in a boat à la Lady of Shalott, Corravan must apprehend her murderer before newspaper coverage sparks panic among London's upper crust. Concurrently working on the case of a runaway wife, Corravan suspects the two cases might be connected, but all too soon another body comes floating down the river, then another.... Abrasive and irregular in his methods, Corravan incurs the censure of his superiors just as his investigation begins to bear fruit. With his career, the reputation of the Yard, the safety of his lover, and the lives of future victims on the line, Corravan pieces together the clues, only to face a soul-wrenching question--can justice be served in the face of horrendous injustice? Corravan's answer and actions to this dilemma upends the mystery genre's traditional norms and provides plenty of fodder for thought on the meaning of justice in an unjust world of stark class and economic disparities. 

Odden's intricate plot merits praise for its keen execution, but the completeness and particularity of her characters endows this novel deep emotional resonance. No cardboard characters populate these pages; the reader can sense the detailed backstory Odden has imagined for each and every player. Issues in the characters' pasts complicate their present, and the author reveals just enough in just the right places to elucidate the characters' motivations. Corravan's traumatic past shapes his effectiveness as an inspector in strong yet subtle ways, and readers will be pleased to discover a man of broad generosity and deep compassion behind his prickly exterior.

Though the novel's action takes place in the kitchens, gentlemen's clubs, and grimy streets of Victorian London, the issue at the heart of DOWN A DARK RIVER--whether the powerless can ever receive justice from the hands of the powerful who have wronged them--remains relevant, and just as thorny, today. Now, as then, the silenced need a voice to bring injustice to light. Through the efforts and humanity of Inspector Michael Corravan, a welcome addition to the ranks of fictional police inspectors, Karen Odden gives them one.


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.

Visit her website to learn more about Karen and her novels.