In Odden’s Under a Veiled Moon (Crooked Lane, Oct.), police superintendent Michael Corravan investigates the sinking of a pleasure steamer, the Princess Alice, on the Thames soon after a passenger train was dynamited, possibly by Irish terrorists.
How did you become interested in Victorian England?
I was interested in finding out the origins of what we now call PTSD. A lot of people think that it came out of shell-shock in WWI. But in the 1860s and ’70s, there was a group of medical men called railway surgeons who were writing about people crawling out of railway disasters, who had all of the same symptoms as PTSD. So I became interested in looking at how railways were represented in parliamentary reports, medical treatises, newspapers, novels, poems, cartoons, all the sort of ephemera that surrounded them because they were a national obsession.
What in your research for this book most surprised you?
The amount of anti-Irish feeling. I found some very unsettling comparisons to a lot of the tropes and the kinds of language used to justify racist discourse today. People talked about how the Irish are like rats—rats have litters every nine weeks and then they take a two-week break and then they get pregnant again, basically, and they compared this to Irish women. It was disgusting.
The plot involves, as you put it, “distortions and manipulations in the press.” How were those manifested in the Victorian press?
There were close to 1,000 newspapers in London, and they had definite leanings, some notoriously friendly to the police, and some that weren’t, and their accounts of the news were vastly different. One of the things I wanted to explore in this book was how this has material effects in the world. The newspapers are not only reporting events, they are producing stories that then shape further events. And I wanted to show that we’ve got to recognize that, and be aware of it, and sort of read against the grain, as it were.
Did the response to the Princess Alice tragedy differ from the responses to the railway crashes?
In several respects, it was very similar. It threw London into a panic, partly because they didn’t know who was on that boat. Because it was a hop-on hop-off arrangement, there was no passenger manifest. So if someone you love didn’t come home that night, it was possible they were on the boat. In the aftermath of the sinking, the rules for navigation were codified more strictly, similar to reforms following the railway accidents.