03/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Lethal River

In London, I walk by the Thames almost every day. I live in Chelsea and the river is about 200 yards from my house. Unlike most famous city rivers -- the Seine, the Danube, the Tiber, the Hudson -- the Thames is dramatically tidal, exhibiting a fall and rise of 15-20 feet twice a day. Consequently, every time you see the river it looks different -- higher or lower, the tide surging in or out. All rivers are living things but the Thames seems more living than most. My walk takes me from my house to the Embankment on the Chelsea shore where I turn west and cross the river over Albert Bridge. Then I walk east through Battersea Park and cross the river again, back to Chelsea, via Chelsea Bridge. On this riverine walk -- it's about two miles -- I keep my eyes open for dead bodies.

This may seem unduly morbid but I was prompted to do so by an article I read in a newspaper a few years ago. This article informed me that, every year, the London river police - the Marine Support Unit, the MSU, based at Wapping below Tower Bridge -- remove on average between 50 to 60 dead bodies a year from the Thames in London. I found the statistic shocking. 50-60? That's more than one a week! Who are these dead people? What have they done to end up in the water? What causes the Thames to bear this grisly cargo? We never hear about these bodies (most of which tend to pool around Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs) unless the corpse is a murder victim or is ghoulishly mutilated in some way.

As I began to do some research I discovered that most of the bodies are those of suicides or foolhardy drunks but I found myself thinking about the river differently and, being a novelist, thinking further about perhaps the greatest novel ever written about London -- Charles Dickens's "Our Mutual Friend" (1865), the last novel he completed before his death. Dickens, I felt, wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that the river still carried its macabre freight. Indeed, "Our Mutual Friend" begins with a dead body being hauled out of the Thames, I remembered, and the notion came to me that maybe the old, sinister, corrupt, Victorian London still existed beneath its modern 21st century personality -- that the brutal, dark, place that Dickens knew was hiding and intact under its shiny surface veneer. Suddenly a modern novel about London began to take embryonic form in my head: here was a way to write about this vast, polyglot, astonishingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic city that is London today -- the biggest urban melting-pot on the planet, I would argue, displacing New York City from its position of pre-eminence. The river would be my portal -- the river would become a character in this novel I was going to write -- and I would take my protagonist (whoever he or she might be) on a journey down the Thames, from Chelsea and Battersea to the river's mouth, where the widening estuary meets the North Sea at Canvey Island and the Hoo Peninsula.

And this is how novels start -- or at least this is how my novels start. A flash of insight or inspiration and then months of questions and answers, of research and narrative exploration, as a story, a world and its people slowly take shape and begin to live and breathe. "Ordinary Thunderstorms," the novel that I eventually wrote over the next three years, turned into a complex amalgam of a conspiracy thriller -- a hunted man being pursued through the city -- an exploration of identity and the consequences of its loss, and an attempt to write about the way we live now, encompassing the sprawling, multifarious metropolis that is 21st century London in all its social variations and profound inequalities. And yet at its heart, I'm glad to say, London's brown, tidal, vermicular, lethal river remains -- an abiding presence. I still walk by the Thames almost every day -- no longer seeking inspiration -- but still keeping half a cautious eye on the turbulent water.