Down a Dark River
by Karen Odden
Publication Date: November 9, 2021
Crooked Lane Books
Hardcover & eBook; 336 pages
Series: An Inspector Corravan Mystery, Book One
Genre: Historical Mystery
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.
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.
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FROM CHAPTER 3
I’d been in asylums before, but none so grim as this. …
The attendant returned swinging a ring of keys, the metallic ping-ping setting off a range of hopeful cries from behind other doors. She laughed uproariously, and I had a sudden longing to serve some of her cruelty back to her in the shape of a shaking. But if nothing else, the trial last fall and its ugly aftermath had taught me prudence, and my task was to get Mrs. Beckford out without having to use time-consuming legal methods.
She picked through the keys until she found the one she wanted. “She ain’t goin’ to talk to you. She ain’t talked sense since she come.”
She dragged open the door, then closed it behind us.
The damp air stank of rotten plaster and the woman’s unwashed body. Cockroaches scattered in front of my boots as I approached the pallet and knelt beside her. Tiny bugs moved along her neck at the edge of the straitjacket, but she did not appear to notice.
I touched her arm. Still she did not move. I reached a hand and gently brushed aside her hair, so I could better see her face. She shrank from my touch, and her mouth tightened into a suspicious knot. But making allowances for the time she’d been in this hellish hole, she resembled the portrait hanging in her husband’s study: blue eyes, a mole by her left temple, a smallish nose, and light brown hair. The only difference was the absence of a shy smile. There was a grim set to her cracked lips.
“Mrs. Beckford?” I said, for the third time. “I’m an inspector with the Metropolitan Police, and I’ve come to get you out of here.”
Her body twitched, rustling the pallet underneath her, but her eyes remained vacant.
And then, quietly, I tried her Christian name: “Madeline?”
Her eyes darted to my face. What I saw there—the desperation of a hunted animal, not a mad one—made me flinch. Not wanting to lose her, I held her gaze and spoke without turning my head. “Release her.”
The attendant crouched and untied the straps, jerking the straitjacket off. Still the woman did not move. Cautiously, I put my hands on her sleeves. Under the filthy silk, her arms were like the bones of a bird, and her whole demeanor was at odds with what I’d been told about her viciousness, her tantrums, and her lasciviousness.
“How long has she been wrapped?” I asked.
Sullenly: “Since two days after she come. We had to. She was havin’ fits.”
“What do you mean, fits?”
“Fits!” the attendant snapped. “Ravin’ and screechin’ and wrivin’ about! So we put ’er in a jacket, and she shut her hole.”
“How has she been eating, without her hands?” A hesitation. “I feed her soup.”
I turned. There was no light of humanity in those piggish eyes. I could just imagine how much of the soup made it into her mouth as opposed to Mrs. Beckford’s.
I picked the unresisting woman up, one arm around her back and the other under her knees. She couldn’t have weighed seven stone.
“Unlock the door.”
The attendant held out her open palm and raised her eyebrows. Awkwardly, I slung Mrs. Beckford over my shoulder and reached into my pocket, withdrawing a half crown and depositing it in her grimy hand. She slid the coin through her fingers as dexterously as a magician and ran her tongue along the edge. Finding it satisfactory, she dropped it into the pocket of her soiled apron, unlocked the door, and pushed it open for us to pass through. Once I gained the hallway, I strode toward the front door, dropped a second coin into the palm of the guard, and reached the pavement, where I gulped the comparatively fresh air.
Upon hailing a cab, I placed Mrs. Beckford inside as gently as I could, and beside me she hunched, staring mutely again. The journey proceeded at a painful crawl among the carriages and costermongers’ wagons, and I felt a rising impatience. But she seemed devoid of anticipation or interest. Her arms remained wrapped around herself, as if she were still in the straitjacket or simply cold.
The cab crossed Willis Lane and continued onto her street. Anticipating Mr. Beckford’s relief and his wife’s thankfulness, I said with no small satisfaction, “Mrs. Beckford, you’re almost home.”
She turned to look. The misting rain blurred the view, but the light of the gas lamps shone upon the wet wrought-iron fence that ran along the row of terraced houses, at the end of which stood hers. From the windows came the pleasant glow of lit fireplaces and electrified lamps—signs of prosperity and comfort. Surely her experience at Holmdel would cause her to appreciate her home, and whatever had caused her to flee could be put right somehow.
I saw on her face the struggle she made to recall herself to the present, and as she recognized where she was, her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a silent scream. Flinging her arms out, she snatched up the truncheon I’d laid on the cushion and whirled it toward my face. Instinctively, my hand came up, and the wood hit my palm with a force that speared pain up my arm. I seized the weapon, flinging it to the floor, and she launched toward me, her hands coming like claws, one set of nails raking my cheek, the other clutching at my hair, ripping some from my scalp. I grasped her arms, though in the same second, I was mindful of not wanting to hurt her. Her screams began in earnest, as loud as a River Police siren, like the howling of a creature being whipped. Both arms straining in spasms, she freed her left hand. I caught it and wrapped my arms around her, holding her body close against my own.
One thing was certain—I couldn’t leave her here. I kicked the wall of the cab, and shouted, “Driver! Go on to St. Anne’s Hospital!”
The wheels slowed to a halt. He either didn’t hear me or thought he’d misheard.
Her thin arm started to slither out from under mine.
I tightened my grasp and kicked again at the side of the cab. “For God’s sake, man! To St. Anne’s Hospital! Go!”
Praise for Down a Dark River
“A harrowing tale of unbridled vice that exposes the dark underbelly of Victorian society.”
“A must read for mystery fans!”
—Charles Todd, New York Times bestselling author of the Inspector Rutledge mysteries
“This twisty-turn-y mystery introducing a new and charismatic detective will delight readers also looking for well-researched history.”
—Susan Elia MacNeal, New York Times bestselling author of the Maggie Hope series
“Odden’s latest is intricately plotted and filled with a cast of wonderful characters, including a worthy and relatable hero.”
—Anna Lee Huber, USA Today bestselling author
“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 last astonishing page. Highly recommended!”
—Syrie James, bestselling author of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte
“Sparkling prose, vivid description, a haunting and satisfyingly complex story . . . Down a Dark River is a must read for fans of any genre of crime fiction.”
—Edwin Hill, author of The Secrets We Share
“Gritty, compelling and vividly written . . . Like Anne Perry, Odden demonstrates a commanding grasp of authentic period detail.”
—Susanna Calkins, author of the Lucy Campion historical mysteries and Speakeasy Murders
“An original, street-smart detective, an intriguing mystery, and delicious Victorian flavor. All my favorite things!”
—Laura Joh Rowland, author of The Ripper’s Shadow, a Victorian Mystery
“No one does Victorian England like Karen Odden . . . Fans of Anne Perry and Charles Finch will welcome Inspector Michael Corravan.”
—Mariah Fredericks, author of the Jane Prescott mystery series
About the Author
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.
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