The Blue Death by Joan Brady

The Blurb On The Back:

For generations the Freyls have ruled Springfield, Illinois, capital of a state of Great Lakes and rivers.  Now convicted killer David Marion threatens their invincibility, and he threatens it from within their own ranks.

Water: it’s blue gold, and the price on world markets is soaring.  When Springfield gets a new mayor, it finds its supply under threat, not only from corporations out for the money but from a disease that appears from nowhere, that nobody can identify and nobody can treat.

None of this interests David Marion until his own past surfaces and he finds himself caught between multinational leviathans at war over America’s heartland.  

You can order THE BLUE DEATH by Joan Brady from Amazon UK, or Waterstone’s.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of this book.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1st June and convicted killer turned security systems expert David Marion is marrying Helen Freyl, physicist and scion of the Freyl family, whose materfamilias Becky has ruled the Illinois state capital of Springfield through a carefully curated network of society wives and political donations.  Becky hates David – has done ever since he was linked with the murder of her son, Hugh, who campaigned to get David released from prison – and is protesting his marriage to Helen by taking to a wheelchair and feigning physical weakness.

But soon Becky has more important things to deal with than a son-in-law she detests.  Jimmy Zemanski, Helen’s ex-boyfriend (who still carries a torch for her), became Mayor of Springfield with Becky’s support and money, campaigning on the express promise of retaining public ownership of the water supply.  However, the bottomless wallet of Francis and Sebastian Slad, who run the UCAI conglomerate, has persuaded him that it would be safer and more cost-effective to transfer ownership to their care.  Becky is determined that this will only happen over her dead body and is soon marshalling all her political clout to oppose the transfer.  But Jimmy isn’t about to roll over and is not above dirty tricks of his own, while UCAII will do anything to protect their financial interests.

David – who has never cared a lick for the goings on in Springfield or the machinations of the great and the good – has other things to deal with himself.  Firstly, there’s the fact that the day of his wedding coincides with his murdering Dr Aloysia Gonzaga (a British scientist working at the university) and disposing of her body in the Mississippi.  Then there’s the fact that Becky’s housekeeper, Donna, needs his help with her son Andy, a gifted computer wiz whose hacking exploits have landed him in the same prison where David himself spent time.  Andy looks unwell and jumpy and won’t tell Donna what’s happening.  Donna is one of the few people David has time for, so he agrees to visit his ex cell mate Quack to see what can be done to assist Andy.  Quack owes David and is prepared to help, but he also has stories of his own to share, one of which is that prisoners engaged in constructing a new water canal keep getting sick with a weird illness that doesn’t respond to normal treatment and many have died.  Quack is sure that something is going on but the prison authorities keep brushing it under the carpet and the media aren’t interested in cons.  

David doesn’t think much of it until one of the worst storms in Illinois’s history hits Springfield, bursting the river and blowing the sewage and water system.  And as the city plunges into violence and chaos, people start to get sick from a strange illness that doesn’t respond to normal treatment and the bodies start to pile up …

Joan Brady’s thriller (the third in a trilogy) is a mixed bag.  Brady’s created a clever multi-faceted plot that combines political thriller and corporate conspiracy and throws in societal collapse to sophisticated effect with anti-hero David Marion’s backstory helping to flesh him out.  However with the exception of Becky and Jimmy, characterisation is thin and unconvincing and as a result the book doesn’t hang together in a satisfying way.

I am going to say from the outset that I picked this up not realising that it was the third and final book in a trilogy that revolves around anti-hero David Marion.  You do not need to read the first two books in order to follow what happens here because Brady does a good job of summarising previous events and how they relate to the various characters.  However I did wonder if I was missing out on some of the relationship development, especially between David and Helen really didn’t convince me and I didn’t understand the basis of their relationship other than that Helen’s obsessed with him for some reason and David seems to tolerate her (we’re told he loves her but there’s very little evidence on the page).

This brings me to the characterisation, which was a big issue for me.  Helen never convinced me as a physicist – other than teaching a maths class and looking at a report – her storyline basically involves being an object for Jimmy to lust after and Becky to seek to control.  I also didn’t get at all what she saw in David who is taciturn at best.  Jimmy is better drawn, in part because there’s more to his storyline and I liked how he’s a savvy political operator but also completely compromised.  For the same reason Becky also comes across as believable on the page – flinty and snobbish, I got her possessiveness over her granddaughter and I enjoyed her own political savviness and determination to take on Jimmy to get her own way. 

In contrast, there’s very little to David on the page, which is a shame because the way the book opens with him murdering Aloysia held a lot of promise, as did the scenes where he returns to the prison where he’d been incarcerated.  I don’t have a problem with an anti-hero main character (in fact I find it refreshing) but I wish there’d been a bit more substance to him on the page because he’s not really central to any of the plot here, more shuffling between other players. 

While the characterisation is not great, the way Brady manages the various plot lines is a master class.  There are a lot of different plot strands here, from the political battle between Becky and Jimmy, the prison death storyline, what’s happened to Andy in prison, the corporate machination storyline, Jimmy’s attempts to pry Helen from David and, of course, why David carried out the murder that opens the book.  Brady keeps them all moving with confidence and flair and cleverly brings them all together in a way that does keep you guessing on the connections.  My only real criticism wasn’t so much the fact that Springfield descends into a kind of apocalyptic societal collapse so much as the fact that the aftermath reaction of some of those characters didn’t convince me (notably a character who is raped and brutally beaten but seems to shrug it off).

Brady writes with a coolness of tone that at times is emotionally frigid.  I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with it because it does convey this sardonic contempt for the rich and their machinations (which are always for their own benefit and power base and never for the interests of the public) but at the same time it becomes jarring in scenes that should be moving, e.g. Andy’s rape.

Ultimately the overall effect is very much a mixed bag that doesn’t quite come together so while there were definitely things that I admired within this book, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it.  That said, there was enough here for me to want to read the preceding two books because it could very well be that some of the issues that bothered me here are actually addressed or result from things in those earlier books.   

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