Inspector Michael Corravan, a senior officer at Scotland Yard now finds himself as acting superintendent at Wapping River Police for the past three months. As a man born in Ireland, orphaned at an early age and raised by the Irish Doyle family, it’s a tough time for him. He’s caught in the middle, working for the English crown while fighting down his disgust at the very active prejudice he sees against his own people across England.
But Corravan is nothing if not dogged in his police duties so when a body is discovered near the docks and found to be likely something more than an accident, he sets out to investigate. But soon his work is overwhelmed by a catastrophe upon the Thames. The pleasure steamer named the Princess Alice is struck by the massive Bywell Castle, an iron-hulled collier, resulting in the loss of most of the 600 passengers. All police are sucked into the effort to search for survivors and handle relief efforts. Local newspapers start reporting rumors and innuendos about the Irish Republican Brotherhood being responsible. A single case of possible murder appears to have turned into a complex case of mass murder for political purposes.
Karen Odden has once again written a wonderful, historically accurate novel of murder, intrigue, and deadly peril. For the first few chapters I wondered what she might have in mind for us readers as we get to peel the proverbial onion back on a society prone to prejudice and political activism. Sure, there was a what appeared to be a murder case and surely Inspector Corravan would investigate and uncover the truth of the matter. But then the whole plot took a deep turn into unexpected territory. The sinking of the Princess Alice is a historical event and many of the characters involved with her destiny and that we read about here are actual historical characters. This incident remains the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident in history. The author uses this tragedy and creates a masterful story of political intrigue around it, forcing Inspector Corravan to solve what amounts to one of the very first incidents of terrorism ever, even when it means working with sordid figures of the seedy London underbelly. And to think I thought this would be just a simple murder mystery.
I’ve read a couple of other novels by Karen Odden and have always come away impressed. She has a knack for creating complex plots and yet keeping them entirely readable. The settings, society, and true-to-life history reflect her in depth research. But, as in all good stories, the characters make the novel and here, Karen Odden has pulled out all the stops. Inspector Corravan is a superb character, filled with human foibles to balance out his honorable intentions. We get to see a lot of his adopted family and their destinies, heavily influenced by a decision he made long ago. Indeed, one of the central themes of the novel is how one learns to live with prior regretful choices.
This is the second of the Inspector Corravan novels and I will add that I have yet to read the first one. However, at no time did I feel like I was missing anything. The author provides any backstory needed so I was quite comfortable throughout. Of course, I do feel the need to go back now and read that first one (“Down a Dark River”), not to fill in anything about this one but simply to revel in the experience of reading a Karen Odden novel.