Exclusive Guest Post: Kate Rhodes on Writing 'River of Souls'

Thursday 23 July 2015
Jude Shelley, daughter of a prominent cabinet minister, had her whole life ahead of her until she was attacked and left to drown in the Thames. Miraculously, she survived. A year later, her family ask psychologist Alice Quentin to re-examine the case.

But then an elderly priest is attacked in Battersea, his body washed up at Westminster Pier. An ancient glass bead is tied to his wrist.

The river has always demanded sacrifices, and now it seems a killer believes it's calling out for more.

Alice is certain that Jude and her family are hiding something, but unless she can persuade them to share what they know, more victims will drown...

Today I am excited to share with you this exclusive guest post from Kate Rhodes where she discusses writing her latest novel in the Alice Quentin series, River of Souls. I have reviewed all four of these books and it is a series that I highly recommend. The guest post from Kate is a truly fascinating read, and I hope you enjoy reading it. And I hope it will inspire you to check out Kate's work if you haven't already!

Kate Rhodes on Writing 'River of Souls'

The idea for the fourth novel in my Alice Quentin series came, like many good things, from a trip to the pub. It was a chilly Saturday in London, October 2013. My sister and I had taken a slow walk by the Thames to catch up on gossip. Our journey had begun at Blackfriars Bridge, ambling east through Southwark and Wapping, ending up at the Prospect of Whitby for a late lunch. The place resonated with history. A sign above the bar explained that the building’s structure came from the carcasses of ships, including its pewter-topped bar, masts and barrels buried in the walls. It was easy to imagine pirates, thieves and vagabonds drinking ale and gambling at the narrow tables when it was still called The Devil’s Tavern, back in 1520. My idea began to crystallise as I stood on the small terrace, staring down at the wide sweep of water and Execution Dock, its yardarm still intact. What if a modern day killer became so obsessed by the river’s dark history he started to hear its voice calling to him, begging for more souls? I was beginning to understand why Peter Ackroyd had described the Thames as the river of the dead. The waterway has been an execution site for centuries, killers drowning victims there long before the days of Jack the Ripper.

I became slightly obsessed in the weeks that followed. My husband didn’t see much of me, while I walked the river at low tide from Vauxhall Bridge to Wapping. Standing on its muddy banks gave me a sense of its power and history, as well as the obscene amount of rubbish hurled into its depths, from bicycles and prams, to beer cans and burger wrappers. I discovered that the black silt of the Thames has a particular smell: boat diesel, effluent, and the sweetness of rotting fruit. My walks led me to many deserted docks and piers which ended up in the story. In these places a killer could tether his victims and watch them drown without ever being seen or heard.

By now I had gained a strong sense of the river’s geography, but I needed more information on its history. The Museum of London turned out to be a fantastic resource, full of artefacts dredged from the river, including Bronze Age daggers, thousand year old glassware, and Roman jewellery. Although the river was a life source for early Londoners, it had also been a deadly threat. Twice during the early days of settlement it had burst its banks, vast storm surges washing away the entire city. Hundreds of skulls had been dredged from the river at Vauxhall Cross, proving that Bronze Age warriors had cast their victims into the water there. Excavations by London Bridge showed that the Romans too made sacrifices, to appease the river and to honour their dead. The river held gold and silver jewellery, ancient coins and valuable weapons. Since the earliest days of settlement people had believed that the vengeful power of the Thames could be pacified by ritual sacrifices. It was this sacrificial mindset that I needed my killer to experience. Like ancient Londoners I wanted him to believe that his own safety would be preserved only if he made human sacrifices to the city’s vast waterway.

I spent long hours on the internet researching the role of the Thames in modern crimes. The 213-mile-long waterway remains a popular place for the disposal of victims. On average one body a week is found in the river, victims of violence or suicide. Vicious currents and freezing cold temperatures mean that anyone unlucky enough to fall in alive will only survive for two minutes in winter. Countless remains have been dredged from the Thames, from the Kray brothers’ gangland executions to the present day. One of the cases that touched me most was that of Zoe Parker. On December 17 2000, her torso was recovered from the water between two moored barges at Battersea, west London. The young sex worker was so alone in the world that no one had reported her missing; after months of investigation she was identified by her tattoos, but fifteen years later no one can explain why she died so violently. Just nine months after the river police found Zoe, the torso of a six year old African boy was discovered. His case gripped the popular imagination, inspiring sympathy for a child named ‘Adam’ by the police. He too is still to be identified. These emotive cases made me wonder why a murderer would mutilate a victim before discarding them in the river, as if his terrible deeds could be washed clean. I wanted my killer to have an ambivalent attitude towards his actions. Unlike many psychopathic murderers, he is riven with guilt, believing that the river is his master, too powerful and vengeful to be disobeyed.

Writing River of Souls gave me a taste of the Thames’s mythical potency as an artery sustaining the city’s industry, but also as a resting place for countless human souls. I realised as the first draft of my book came into shape that I couldn’t write about it with conviction until I’d waded into the water myself. So on a chilly March day I slipped off my boots, rolled up my jeans and stepped into the water at low tide below Blackfriars Bridge. The silt slipped under my feet, the water breathtakingly cold. Even at that depth I could feel the currents tugging me, as if the river was longing to claim me for its own. Fascinated as I am, I’ve never been happier to scramble back onto dry land.

About Kate Rhodes

Kate Rhodes was born in London. She has worked as a teacher and university lecturer, and now writes full-time.

Kate began her writing career as a poet, publishing two prize winning collections. She has held a Hawthornden fellowship and been shortlisted for Forward and Bridport Prizes. She has written four novels in the Alice Quentin series, CROSSBONES YARD, A KILLING OF ANGELS , THE WINTER FOUNDLINGS and RIVER OF SOULS, the first of which was selected by Val McDermid for the Harrogate Crime festival's New Blood panel championing new crime writers. In 2014 Kate Rhodes won the Ruth Rendell Short Story Award, sponsored by the charity InterAct.

Visit her website at http://katerhodes.org or follow her on Twitter @K_RhodesWriter.

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