Q & A # 95 – Karen Odden, “Under A Veiled Moon”

Publisher’s Weekly put it succinctly:

“(Karen) 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.”

Starred review!

I agree. But I don’t have a lot of experience reading historical mysteries. For some reason, I’d rather be in the “now,” whatever that means. Maybe it means books set during my lifetime. I don’t know.

Some historical mysteries, it seems to me, try so hard to showcase the research. And then the story gets overwhelmed by the details. And then there’s all the lingo and verbiage and attempt to capture the way people (allegedly) spoke at the time.

But there are a zillion historical mystery fans out there and I hope they all find Karen Odden’s new series featuring Inspector Michael Corravan. My full review is far below (though you could just take Publisher Weekly‘s word for it and go order a copy now).

First, Karen was kind enough to answer a few questions by email. I learned something (well, quite a bit) about the appeal of writing historical mysteries.


Question: This may come across like a fairly generic and predictable question to ask a writer of historical fiction, but what is the appeal of digging in for all this research? It seems so daunting to me to get all the details right and, at the same time, spin a good yarn. The work sounds arduous so please convince me of the pleasure involved. Why is this your happy place?

Karen Odden: Back in 2001, I wrote my (English) PhD dissertation on Victorian railway disasters from about 1840-1890. There were dozens of accidents, and they were a national obsession because people were crawling out of them with a range of bizarre, belated symptoms that we would now call PTSD … but the medical men had no idea where they came from or how to treat them, so for a while they blamed some mysterious, weird phenomenon called “railway spine.”

The hundreds of texts produced by medical men, barristers, novelists, and newspapermen all influenced each other, so phrases and theories emerged in a vast intertextual web across different genres. Later, Freud later drew on this web to describe “hysteria” in the 1890s; WWI doctors would use it to describe “shell shock”; and still later, it would be used to explain PTSD. In their writing, the Victorians asked questions such as, What counts as an injury? How can we explain and cure this weird disease? When calculating the amount given as compensation for a railway injury, should it matter if someone is white or wealthy or male?

All this to say – when I turned to fiction, I had a reasonably solid bedrock of research about the Victorian period (including class, gender, medicine, law, etc.). For my first book, A Lady in the Smoke, I put Lady Elizabeth Fraser and her laudanum-addicted mother on a train in 1874 London and ran it off the rails. Chaos ensues … along with some railway fraud, a stock scheme, murder, and other juicy events. And, frankly, I love the research — bizarre historical factoids make something in my brain light up.

Question: Do you gaze at writers of contemporary fiction and think, they have it so easy? Have you ever written a contemporary novel?

Karen Odden: Yes! About ten years ago, I tried to write a contemporary YA about a girl who moves to Key West to live with her father after her mother dies, but it wasn’t my metier. I have two children (now age 22 and 18), and I remember once they were watching me try to do something on my phone. After a minute or two, they shook their heads hopelessly. “Mom, you belong in 1870s London.” (Yes, I have a map of 1874 London on my office wall.)

Question: Was it particularly challenging to use such a horrific and catastrophic real-life tragedy as the centerpiece for Under a Veiled Moon? To build in a motive and story to an accident?

Karen Odden: I felt so lucky when I found the Princess Alice steamship disaster! I stumbled across a mention of “the worst maritime disaster ever to strike London” when I was halfway through writing Down a Dark River and threw a scribbled note in a manila folder marked “Corravan 2.”

True history tells us that the collision between the little wooden steamship and the huge coal carrier was an accident – but I was intrigued by the idea that the Princess Alice was a hop-on-hop-off pleasure steamer, one of a fleet that people could ride up and down the Thames for a day, meant there was no passenger manifest. This was a recipe for disaster and misunderstandings! People could vanish and pretend they’d died, or take on different identities — or their bodies might never be found at all, causing all kinds of legal and social and economic problems involving inheritance and such. All great material for a mystery!

But I had also begun delving into the anti-Irish sentiment that was so prevalent in London, and I thought … hmm, I want this in my book somewhere. So I mushed the two fraught elements of Victorian society together, added my own personal interest in regret and what we do when we can’t make amends, and presto, there were the major parts of the book. (That makes it sound easy. It wasn’t.)

Question: Do you have a set process for research? How do you know when you’ve got enough research to begin writing? Or do you write and research simultaneously? Have you taken a river trip down the Thames?  

Karen Odden: Once I have my bizarre historical factoid and I know my main character and a couple secondary characters well enough (which was easy with Under a Veiled Moon, because I knew Corravan and his friends from Down a Dark River, the first in the series), I begin writing. I continue to research, though, as I develop the chapters.

While I’ve never taken a trip down the Thames, I’ve walked miles of the Victoria Embankment (on the north side of the river) and over its bridges. Last December, I also visited the amazing Museum of London Docklands, which has Victorian maps, boats, licenses, scales for weighing tea and cloth and coffee, and clumsy wooden swan-necked carts … it made it very easy to imagine Corravan’s life as a dockhand and lighterman!

Question: There are many interesting parallels between “then” and “now” in Under a Veiled Moon, particularly with issues around self-governance, racism, and classism. And one issue interwoven throughout the novel is the power of misinformation and how messages in the newspapers can be manipulated to influence public opinion. How do you shed light on these similarities without going overboard (sorry, bad pun)?

Karen Odden: In additional to loving the Victorian era, another, more important, reason I write historical fiction is this: I believe that when the world inside a book (1870s London) and the world outside (e.g., present-day US) are far enough apart, a space opens up, enabling some creative play. The Victorians dealt with many of the same issues we’re dealing with now – including, as you say, classism, racism, manipulation of truth by the largely unregulated media (London had hundreds of newspapers by 1880). I don’t even have to go looking for similarities. They smack me in the face all the time as I research. So writing historical fiction means I can tackle some of these themes while avoiding some of the entrenchment that can occur when the issue is close and emotional and highly charged in our present-day lives. I don’t mean that I offer tidy solutions or a moralizing “message” in my books, but I hope to offer new perspectives, grounded in compassion and openheartedness, with which to consider the knotty problems that profoundly affected the Victorians and still affect us. 

Question: After writing three novels with female protagonists, why did you switch? What was the hardest part about writing across gender? What made it easier? And was it easy to sell a new series?  

Karen Odden: I was orphaned at Harper Collins partway through the first book in a two-book deal. After the release of A Dangerous Duet (2018) and A Trace of Deceit (2019), I was nudged out the door, and I knew I needed to find a fresh beginning, a new project, and a new publishing house. For my first three books, all with different young women protagonists, I’d taken as my starting point a particular aspect of Victorian culture – railway disasters, music halls and thieving rings, and the underbelly of the art and auction business – then imagined young women who must become amateur sleuths within those worlds.

But Down a Dark River was inspired by a story I read about the contemporary US. A young woman was jaywalking across a quiet street when a car came flying around the corner and hit her, putting her in the hospital for months with injuries. The driver was white, male, wealthy, and under the influence. When the girl’s family sued, the judge awarded her a paltry $2,000, ostensibly because she was jaywalking. Now, this suggests an appalling exploitation of power imbalances in our culture, but what struck me even more was what happened in the aftermath: the girl’s father threatened the judge’s daughter. I believe he wanted to show the judge what it was to almost lose a child. So it was an act of revenge … but it could also be thought of as a last-ditch howl for empathy in the face a cruel disavowal of this girl’s suffering. That got me thinking about the relationship between failures of empathy and revenge, and I began to imagine a story set in Victorian London where I could explore it.

However, I only got a few pages along before I realized that I could not write this book using a young woman amateur sleuth. I needed a man. (That is probably the only time in my life I’ve ever said that.) I had written a Yard inspector before, with Matthew Hallam, who appears in both Duet and Trace; he’s more genteel and better educated than Michael Corravan, who is an Irish outsider from Whitechapel (Jack the Ripper territory). Once Corravan arrived in my head, I fell for him; and I was lucky that an editor at Crooked Lane fell for him too, and quickly.

Your question about writing across gender is a good one. I didn’t want to sound like a woman writing a man, so in the mornings, before I started writing, I would read 1870s newspaper articles or police reports out loud, to get the male voice, the cadence and vocabulary, into my ear.

Question: You gave Michael Corravan such a rich backstory and many complicated, layered relationships so there’s always more than the case itself at stake. In particular, in Under a Veiled Moon, with his brother Colin. Did you have these pieces set before you started writing the first, Down a Dark River? Were you thinking character arc from the get-go?

Karen Odden: It took me some time to figure out what core issue was going to define Corravan and cause profound problems for him – and how he was going to have to change and grow in Down a Dark River. Partway through, it became clear to me, and Belinda (his love interest) deals him the truth: Corravan has come out of Whitechapel good with his fists, decisive and strong, and comfortable in the role of rescuer. (Corravan rescues Colin’s older brother Pat from being beaten; that’s why he’s adopted by the Doyle family.) But always being the rescuer has a psychological payoff – Corravan never has to feel weak or vulnerable. And the problem in Down a Dark River is that the man killing all these women (daughters of powerful men) is doing it because he feels angry and powerless. So Corravan needs to remember what it is to be powerless if he’s going to solve this case.

As human beings, we tend to have core issues … trees that we walk around again and again. As I began Under a Veiled Moon, I thought, rescuing is one of Corravan’s primary drives, a fundamental aspect of his identity. Who is Corravan going to rescue this time? Or fail to rescue? And what will that do to him?

My books tend to kick off with a combination of two things – the weird historical factoid and some personal concern of my own. As I was writing Under a Veiled Moon, I was thinking a lot about regret – how it can serve us, help us move forward. So that became one of Corravan’s core questions, which he alludes to on page 1: “Sometimes I wonder how we all bloody well live with the fool things we’ve done.” If Down a Dark River was about failures of empathy and revenge, Under a Veiled Moon is about regret.

Question: What’s next?  

Karen Odden: I’m working on an historical stand-alone about a young woman in (you guessed it) Victorian London. She’s a thief, and a good one. I’m still figuring her out, though!


More on Karen Odden’s website.



I’m not sure where the blurry line is that makes a novel “historical fiction” or an “historical mystery.” Would a novel set in the 1970’s, and published in 2022, qualify as “historical”? Why? Or why not? Do we accept a continuum from five decades past, perhaps because we recognize the basic elements of how people lived and moved through the world? But when it comes to reconstructing another era on the page, when the living conditions were so different, is it “historical” because it’s a leap of imagination and research to put characters in motion, paint the scenes, and bring readers along?

For some reason I can’t really explain, I don’t read many historical novels. And I didn’t read Karen Odden’s opening novel in the Inspector Corravan Mystery Series, Down A Dark River. But the second entry, Under A Veiled Moon, is one of those novels that is so firmly grounded in the world of the late 1870’s London that I was immersed. From the get-go.

Key, to me, is taking us deep inside Inspector Corravan’s point of view, setting up a perfect blend of character and story. Perfect blend and perfect balance, with a light sprinkling of relevant touches. Plus, we’ve got a lead character who appreciates what he’s been through. Corravan’s youth as an orphan and his upbringing in rough neighborhoods gives Corravan perspective on how people get along. Or don’t. But Odden doesn’t overmilk the psychology. “We all carry pieces of our past with us,” thinks Corravan in the opening sentence. “Sometimes they’re shiny and worthy as new half crowns in our pockets. Sometimes they’re bits of lint or scraps of paper shredded beyond use.”

Under A Veiled Moon is awash in water. Water in the form of the Thames and all the divisions it brings to the city of London and water in the form of the Irish Sea and all the distrust and troubles it brings when the Irish come looking for work and a new life. And into the fray Odden brings a character who knows how to read every ripple.

“Growing up on the Thames, my very pulse became attuned to its waves, my days to its ebb and flood tides. Mud-larking along its banks as a child and working the docks and a lighter boat as a young man, I have been beside, in, on, amid, and—once, frighteningly—under its waters. I’ve seen the river when the waves flare brightly off the sterns of steamers and when the water is leached of all color in the dead of winter. This fine September morning, flashes of sun glinted on the hulls of sturdy tugboats, masted ships, pleasure steamers, small lighters, and enormous coal ships—all different lengths and widths and tonnages, moving at various speeds, carrying passengers and parcels, the spice and silks, the metal works in mail that make our modern life what it is.”

Michael Corravan is Irish, too, and bristles at the “rancor” against his people. “Not to say we don’t deserve some of it,” he acknowledges.

At the outset, Under A Veiled Moon gives Corravan a case of a dead man sprawled on East Lane Stairs on the banks of the Thames. “The smell of gin rose from him, strong enough to overpower the stench from the river.” The dead man may have failed to pay his gambling debts. As Corravan pursues that case,there’s a horrific crash on the Thames between the paddle steamer Princess Alice and the collier Bywell Castle, a real-life tragedy that took the lives of over 500 people. The Princess Alice sunk in four minutes, split in two. Odden doesn’t flinch at the horror. The collision forms the centerpiece of Under A Veiled Moon and Inspector Corravan chases an investigation that cuts at the heart of the fabric of the ever-evolving city.

While the wreck of the Princess Alice is raised from its watery grave, the head of the Wapping River Police charges Inspector Corravan with discovering whether the collision might have been orchestrated. If the “accident” can be tied to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the discussions around Ireland’s efforts to gain home rule might be seen in an entirely different light. If someone is trying to make it appear to be an IRB operation, that’s another thing, too. Corravan’s trail leads him to a meeting with James McCabe, “the most infamous figure in the London underworld.” Not only does Corravan have to sift through what he’s told with considerable wariness, there’s the issue of attempting to extract Corravan’s “brother” Colin (from the family that took him in) from McCabe’s gang clutches.

Corravan is dogged, patient, curious, and wary. He’s a self-starter. He distrusts facts that come too easy. He’s not afraid to sit and wait “for a rat to come out of its hole, its nose twitching to sense the ratcatcher’s net nearby.” He watches the water and the light. He swims against the tide (water pun intended) of easy thinking, even if it means putting his countrymen in a bad light or being seen as a traitor to his people for putting on “police airs.”

The plot is twisty. It’s complex but not complicated. The relevant historical tidbits are seamlessly interwoven. Crackling with relevant echoes from the “modern” era, Under A Veiled Moon is a robust ride down a dark and shadowy river. And you will feel transported, less and less concerned with ‘then’ versus ‘now’ and pondering, unfortunately, how little has really changed.  


Disclosure: Karen and I share the same literary agent (Josh Getzler) but I stand by every word.

2 responses to “Q & A # 95 – Karen Odden, “Under A Veiled Moon”

  1. Pingback: 2022: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

  2. Pingback: 2022: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

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