Sunday, July 23, 2023

The Dark, Enchanting River: My Multiple Encounters

I am delighted to introduce our guest today, best-selling, multi-award nominee Karen Odden. If you haven't read her wonderful novels yet, this is a great introduction to her interests and POV on Victorian London. Please see her bio at the end of the post and check out her newest book, Under a Veiled Moon. Welcome, Karen!


Thames, possibly from tamesa, Celtic "the dark one"' or tamesis, Latin for "dark: or tamasa, Sanskrit for "dark river."

The first time I ever saw the Thames River was in a Monet calendar on my bedroom wall when I was sixteen. In this rather idealized version, painted in the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Westminster’s spires sketch a delicate calligraphy against gorgeous pastel clouds. I thought it looked enchanted. I also naively thought the river was pronounced Th-aims. 


Image of Money painting Houses of Parliament, London

Fast forward to grad school at NYU in the 1990s when I was studying Victorian literature and encountered this illustration of the Thames during the Great Stink of 1858.  


"The Silent Highwayman" 1858  

Not quite the Monet, is it? At the time, the river was up to 20% raw sewage (horse, human, etc.) and the stench and “miasma” from the river was so disgusting that the Members of Parliament covered the windows of Westminster with huge cloths, sprayed with a type of bleach, and addressed each other through scented handkerchiefs. (Sound vaguely familiar?) They speedily hired civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette to overhaul the sewer system, and the enormous pipes he required lie underneath the Victoria Embankment on the north bank, where you can still see his name. 



It wasn’t until the summer of 1999 that I spent time in person near the Thames River. I was researching for my PhD dissertation on Victorian railway disasters and the injuries to hundreds of travelers, including Charles Dickens.


Dickens ministering to the injured

I was tracing the connections from Victorian railway injuries (sometimes called “railway spine”) of the mid-1800s, to Sigmund Freud’s “hysteria” in the 1890s, to “shell shock” in WWI, and to our present-day PTSD.


So by day, I would sit in the British Library on Euston Road poring over medical treatises, parliamentary papers, novels, and newspaper accounts of railway disasters. On nights and weekends, I walked London. Now I saw the Thames for myself, in different lights and from different bridges. As I stood on Blackfriars Bridge (built in 1869) and watched the river lapping at the pillars beneath me, rhythmic as a pulse, I’d think of all the Victorians who had passed where I stood, including Queen Victoria herself, who paraded across the day it opened. 


Queen Victoria opening Blackfriars Bridge November 1869.

It wasn’t until I began researching for my first Inspector Corravan novel, Down a Dark River, that I read Peter Ackroyd’s magisterial Thames and learned that the river is tidal for about 100 miles inland from the North Sea. (I probably should have known this.) Twice a day, well past London, the river changes direction, throwing up a mix of trash and treasure onto the banks. In his novels, Dickens wrote about the mud-larkers, who scrounged along the muddy banks for coal, wood, and anything usable or sellable. You can still do it now: for around $35 on TripAdvisor, you can join a guided tour, with rubber boots, a pail, and a grabber tool for digging, as you see here.


Mud larkers, viewed from Blackfriars Bridge, December 2021.

Between my reading and live observation, I came to realize how marvelously complex the Thames is -- at once changeful and steady, both a sewer and the lifeblood of Victorian trade, older than the Romans and yet essential to London’s modernity.

My most recent visit to London was in 2021. My daughter was studying abroad at Oxford (where she rowed crew on the Thames!)


I flew over in December to meet her. We spent two weeks walking London, a safe activity during Covid. I also ventured to the Museum of the London Docklands, which is housed in an old Victorian warehouse on a cobblestone street that was desperately difficult to walk in. This museum illuminated another aspect of the Thames – the world of Victorian dockwork.



Michael Corravan, my protagonist in Down a Dark River, is a former thief and bare-knuckles boxer from Whitechapel; he is also a dockworker and then a lighterman, ferrying goods from ship to warehouses. This museum had lighter boats, scales and weights, the swan-neck carts used to move barrels, maps of the changing shore and evolution of the Victorian docks, and even a lighterman’s license from the 1870s, like the one Corravan would have carried.  



Corravan’s knowledge of the Thames is crucial to solving the case in Down a Dark River, where young women are being murdered, placed in lighter boats, and being sent down the Thames.


In the sequel, Under a Veiled Moon, my starting point was a maritime disaster in 1878. The Princess Alice, a small wooden pleasure steamer, was coming upstream by moonlight when the Bywell Castle, a 900-ton iron-hulled coal carrier rammed it, breaking it into pieces and sending all 600-some passengers into the water, where most drowned, bringing London to a horrified standstill.  




As I read about this tragedy, I recognized that a small wooden steamship clashing with a metal behemoth suggested all sorts of transitions and conflicts that were occurring (often violently) in the nineteenth century – small cottage industries versus large industrial factories, people versus machines, and so on. Again, the Thames felt rich with symbolism.


Each time I have returned to the Thames, in life or in my fiction, I have found something different and strange. I love it as a setting for my novels because I want to represent a society where ideas about mercy and justice, and loyalty and duty, were morally complicated for my characters rather than neatly binary, and the river, with all its complexity, seems the proper setting for this. 


USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden received her PhD from NYU, taught at UW-Milwaukee, and edited for academic journals before writing fiction set in 1870s London. Her fifth novel, Under a Veiled Moon (2022), was nominated for the Agatha, Lefty, and Anthony Awards for Best Historical Mystery and features Michael Corravan, a former thief turned Scotland Yard Inspector. Karen serves on the national board of Sisters in Crime and divides her time between Arizona and Utah, where she dreams up murder plots while hiking. Connect with her at, where youll find her history blog, newsletter, and social media handles.





  1. Thanks, Karen. Your books sound intriguing, will check them out (not from the library :-).

  2. I've seen the Thames many times, but wonderful to see it through your eyes. Thanks, Karen.

  3. Karen, like Michael, I've been to London many times, but there is so much here I didn't know. Thank you so much for sharing it with us

    1. I have been reading and studying and writing about the Victorian Era since the 1990s and I feel like I learn new things about London all the time. It makes something zing in my brain when I find out these facts. Thanks for hosting me - this essay was a pleasure to write!

  4. A highlight of this year’s Left Coast Crime was the opportunity I had to moderate a panel with you as a participant. Not only did I get to read your riveting latest book, but found myself transported to living a Thames river life in Victorian times. A very different sort of reading experience from the Huck Finn days of my youth. Thanks for the great post, Karen. —Jeff

    1. Thanks, Jeff! Yes, that was a great panel at LCC.

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  6. I've only been to London twice, but I've read about it and particularly the Victorian Era in so many books. Still, I was amazed by so many things you learned and shared in this article. I enjoyed it so much.

    1. Thank you so much! I do feel like the Thames is so rich with history, I'm always learning something new. :)

  7. Karen, this post shows so much of your growth as it enlightens us about the Thames. A famous old quote of Heraclitis kept coming to mind as I read along: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. This enchanting post rings it true, don't you think?

    1. Absolutely! I love this idea. Thank you, Pamela.

  8. Karen, thank you for livening up our blog with a sale down the Thames.

  9. Wonderful post, as fascinating as one of your rich works of fiction. The Thames is a character!