Down a Dark River
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
London, 1878 and Scotland Yard is still reeling from a corruption scandal involving three of its inspectors, all found guilty of taking bribes to allow criminals to evade capture. A Parliamentary Review Commission has appointed a new Director, public school educated, son of a baronet Howard Vincent who is determined to build the Yard into a force to be respected and trusted.
Senior Inspector Michael Corravan is now one of only two remaining detectives, with consequently more cases than he can deal with, including the disappearance of the wife of a high-profile Mayfair gentleman and partner in a large shipping company. Born in London’s East End Corravan lived on the streets for a while after his mother died. Eventually taken in by an Irish family, he became a dock worker and bare-knuckle fighter before joining the River Police and then transferring to Scotland Yard. Although respectable now, he has never forgotten his origins or the Irish woman who took him in.
When a well-dressed, young woman is found dead in a boat, her body posed and scattered with flower petals, in a manner that reminds him of Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shallot’, Corravan realises he has an unusual murderer on his hands. Later identified as the daughter of a prominent judge, he finds it hard to find any reason for her death. He is even more puzzled when a second dead woman is found a week later, similarly posed in a boat, especially since there seems to be no connection between the two victims.
Corravan is a conflicted character, with a strong sense of justice but a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. His tendency to run roughshod over anyone in his way has Vincent telling him he has ‘all the finesse of a rabid bear barging through the woods’. However, he has a keen detective’s nose when it comes to unearthing clues and intuitively knows when someone has something to hide. Although, not married he has a discreet relationship with an author, Belinda Gale, who unlike most women of the time is not in a hurry to wed. he manages to spend one night per week with her, where is able to relax, and learn something of poetry and literature. He is also well respected by his new police partner, young Inspector Stiles, who is a good counterbalance to Corravan’s brusqueness, with his kindness and open manner that puts witnesses at ease.
This is a superbly written Victorian mystery. Dark and atmospheric, with the inscrutable Thames playing a major role at the centre of the crimes. It’s a tale of revenge and retribution, rich in historical detail with a cast of fascinating characters. The mystery is intricate and complex, unfolding slowly at first but culminating in fast paced suspense as the twists and revelations emerge and rapidly coalesce to identify the murderer and motive. It’s great to see this listed as the first in a series by the author as I can’t wait to see where she takes Corravan next.
With thanks to Crooked Lane Books and Netgalley for a copy to read. Expected publication November 9, 2021.