From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Detective mysteries set in England during the nineteenth-century are like catnip to me. I have been enjoying C. S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries, and Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell Mysteries for years. It took a beautiful cover and a big hook to get me to try Down a Dark River, by Karen Odden. I was not disappointed. Her characters are layered and conflicted and the mystery is twisty and surprising. Under a Veiled Moon, her second book in the Inspector Corravan Mystery series, recently released on October 11. I was curious about the new mystery and Karen generously agreed to an interview to discuss the series, her latest novel, and her writing career.
Welcome Karen. What is Under a Veiled Moon about?
Set in 1878 London, it’s about an inspector at Scotland Yard named Michael Corravan, who is Irish and grew up in a seedy section of London called Whitechapel. One night a small steamship, the Princess Alice, is rammed by a huge coal ship, and he’s assigned the task of finding out how it happened – whether it was an accident or a criminal act of sabotage. Early clues point to Irish extremists, and Corrravan, being Irish, is caught between competing loyalties. Meanwhile, his younger brother Colin has gotten mixed up in the Irish Cobbwaller gang in Whitechapel, so Michael is trying to help him get out of that—when Colin is obstinately refusing to listen to him. People who like well-researched historical fiction or the Victorian mysteries by Anne Perry, Alex Grecian, Lindsay Faye, and Will Thomas tend to like my books.
This is your second Victorian mystery in your Inspector Corravan series after Down a Dark River (2021). Can you share your initial inspiration for the series?
This is a great question because the first Corravan book, Down a Dark River, really was a new direction for me. My first three mysteries each feature a different young woman who is pulled into a mystery because someone she loves is injured or murdered. Each novel was inspired by an aspect of Victorian culture – railway crashes, music halls, and the art and auction world.
But for Down a Dark River, the inspiration came from a story I read about the contemporary US. A young woman who was jaywalking across a quiet street was hit by a speeding drunk driver and terribly injured. When her family sued, the judge dismissively awarded her $2,000 – ostensibly because she was jaywalking. In the aftermath, the victim’s father threatened the judge’s daughter – and this really struck me. I believe he did this to make the judge understand what it was to almost lose a child. In a sense, his act was a last-ditch plea for empathy. So I wanted to explore the relationship between failures of empathy and revenge – but in 1870s London. However, I couldn’t do this with an amateur young woman sleuth. At that time, the judges, witnesses, and lawyers were all men, and for my main character, I needed a man. (That might be the only time in my life I’ve said that – LOL.) I had used Scotland Yard Inspectors as secondary characters in my previous books, but this time I put Michael Corravan front and center.
Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan is a complex character. What is his background and how has it influenced his ability to solve crimes?
Michael was born in Ireland but came to London with his family when he was very young. The 1860s-70s was a hard time to be Irish. His father was a silversmith who couldn’t find legitimate work, became a counterfeiter, and died when Michael was 3. His mother vanished when Michael was 11. After this, he turns to thieving until age 15 when he is taken in by the Doyle family. He works on the docks and becomes a bare-knuckles boxer for an unscrupulous man named O’Hagan, who eventually threatens his life. Corravan flees across the Thames, to Lambeth, where he finds work as a uniformed constable. When we meet him in Down a Dark River, twelve years later, he’s become an Inspector at Scotland Yard. Having grown up among crime and being street smart and good with his fists, he’s successful as an inspector, but being Irish means he’s always somewhat of an outsider.
Under the Veiled Moon is based on the 1878 maritime disaster of the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice and the fallout from the investigation into the deaths of more than 500 passengers who perished when she sank. What was your process to research the events? Were there any surprising facts or stories that you uncovered that made it into your novel?
The Princess Alice was one of a small fleet of pleasure steamers that traveled up and down the Thames each day – sort of like our hop-on-hop-off tour buses. For 2 shillings you could ride, stopping off to have a picnic or visit a promenade, and picking up the next boat. On the night of September 3, 1878, the Princess Alice was returning home when she was rammed by the Bywell Castle, a 900-ton iron-hulled coal ship. The Princess Alice broke into three pieces and sank immediately, throwing 650 passengers into the Thames. Most drowned, and there was no passenger manifest – so no one even knew who was on the boat. Bodies drifted onto both shores and families frantically searched for survivors. It was just devastating.
One strange story I discovered was a man feigned his death in the disaster and went on to live a completely different life with a new wife!
How do Inspector Corravan’s young colleague Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale factor into the story?
Gordon Stiles is Corravan’s junior by nearly 10 years … but his tact and good humor make him a great foil for Corravan, who is at one point described by the frustrated Yard director as having all the subtlety of “a rabid bear barreling through the woods.”
Similarly, Corravan’s love interest Belinda Gale, a novelist and playwright, provides insights. At one point in Down a Dark River, she remarks shrewdly that he came out of Whitechapel good with his fists and strong, which are fine traits; but he’d be a better policeman if he added in some empathy. And in Under a Veiled Moon, she brings him a clue in the newspapers that he wouldn’t find on his own, as well as offering Michael some advice about how to talk to his nineteen-year-old brother so Colin might actually listen.
Can you put into perspective for the reader what living in London in the late 1870s was like for the characters in Under the Veiled Moon?
Obviously, 1870s London was very different from London or the US today. But some aspects of life bear an almost uncanny resemblance to our own. We have a largely unregulated social media that doesn’t merely reflect events in our world but shapes our perceptions of them and creates situations with material consequences. Not so different was the situation in London – with 1,000 newspapers by 1880 and very little regulation of any kind. Like today, in 1870s London there were vast disparities in wealth, education, and social standing – remember that most of the men and all the women were unable to vote! And the vitriol and sheer nastiness of the prejudice against the Irish had a lot in common with the anti-Semitism and racism we see today.
Your writing style is immersive with many layers of challenges for your characters. How do you get inside their heads and imagine the twists and turns in the story?
I spend hours writing longhand on legal pads, writing the stories of my secondary characters in their voice and from their point-of-view. So, for example, I have a page for Gordon Stiles that begins, “My name is Gordon Stiles; I am 22 years old and this is my first year as an Inspector at the Yard. I grew up outside of London, with 3 sisters. When my sister Cathy was fourteen, she saw her best friend run over by a cart. Cathy went silent for weeks, and all of us took turns taking care of her. Seeing death cana alter someone – maybe even for good.” This brings Stiles to life for me and helps explain where his kindness and empathy comes from.
I know some authors can get away with jotting down a few notes – “brown hair, left-handed, prefers whiskey to ale” – but it leaves me feeling hollow. Whereas if I write out someone’s history, I know them well enough to know what will happen if I put them in a room with Corravan and a problem.
What is up next in your writing career?
I hope my publisher will want a third book in the series, as I have an idea that I just love! I discovered it while traveling in London. At the Great Scotland Yard Hotel, there is a bar called The Forty Elephants. Given the Victorian vibe of the hotel, I thought “Elephants” might be a reference to the Victorian empire, which expanded into India and Africa, where there are elephants. But no – it’s a reference to Elephant and Castle, an area in Lambeth (south of the Thames) known for thievery. The unwary traveler who settled before a fire at the Elephant and Castle Inn would wake the next morning to find his pockets empty and his belongings gone, stolen by men in the night. As an adjunct to that, the Forty Elephants were an all-women thieving gang who pilfered from the stores in the West End – what we’d call “department stores” including Whiteley’s and Harvey Nichols … and I think they’ll be a remarkable adversary for Corravan.
In addition to writing my books, I’ve also been offering more workshops on the writing craft (via zoom) and visiting book clubs and libraries to present slide shows and talks about the history that shapes my novels. It’s so much fun, and while it’s different from being in an academic classroom (I taught for a while at UW-Milwaukee), it’s very rewarding.
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.
In the tradition of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, a fatal disaster on the Thames and a roiling political conflict set the stage for Karen Odden’s second Inspector Corravan historical mystery.
September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.
For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.
Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.
As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.
“An exceptional sequel to 2021’s Down a Dark River. … Odden never strikes a false note, and she combines a sympathetic lead with a twisty plot grounded in the British politics of the day and peopled with fully fleshed-out characters. Fans of Lindsay Faye’s Gods of Gotham trilogy will be enthralled.”— Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“Victorian skulduggery with a heaping side of Irish troubles.”— Kirkus Reviews
“Charismatic police superintendent Michael Corravan is back in a gripping sequel about the mysterious sinking of the Princess Alice. Odden deftly weaves together English and Irish history, along with her detective’s own story, in a way that will keep readers flipping pages long into the night.”— Susan Elia MacNeal, New York Times bestselling author of Mother Daughter Traitor Spy and the Maggie Hope series.
- Under a Veiled Moon: An Inspector Corravan Mystery (Book 2), by Karen Odden
- Crooked Lane Books (October 11, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (336 pages)
- ISBN: 978-1639101191
- Genre: Historical Mystery
Cover image courtesy of Crooked Lane Books © 2022; text Lauren Ann Nattress & Karen Odden © 2022, austenprose.com. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate.