Set against the backdrop of Philadelphia in the 1880's, Joanne Dahme's Contagion is a mix of historical and mystery fiction with a touch of romance - all of which works reasonably well.
To cement the business relationship of two wealthy Irish families, Rose is married at the tender age of 16 to 23 Patrick Dugan. Patrick is a well known and influential construction contractor who is determined to win the contract to build a filtration plant on the Schuylkill River. This river supplies the city with its drinking water but it is also the dumping point for the city's sewage too. This has resulted in numerous deadly typhoid outbreaks which have killed among others, Rose's mother and father.
One would think that in the 1880's filtration would be the obvious course of action in providing safe potable water but opposing Patrick Dugan is Sean Parker, manager of the Water Works. Sean lost his fiance, Eileen, in the last typhoid outbreak. He wants the city to enforce its sewer laws which require businesses and the city to dump their raw sewage into the diversion sewers which would then empty the sewage into the Schuylkill River, below the water intake for the city reservoirs.
It is this conflict that forms the backdrop for the novel. The conflict between the two escalates when Rose receives a series of threatening notes telling her husband to back off pushing for water filtration. But when her dear friend Nellie Murphy is murdered in what to Rose appears to have been a botched attempt on her own life, the conflict turns deadly. As Rose and Sean work together to solve the mystery of Nellie's murder, Rose begins to suspect that her life and the people she loves are not quite what they seem to be. Added to this is the deliberate contamination of the reservoirs.
Dahme tells the story in the alternating voices of Sean Parker and Rose Dugan. As Dahme develops the main characters in her narrative, it becomes obvious who the lead suspect in the murder of Nellie is, although Dahme does her best to try to distract the reader from this conclusion.
Overall, I found this book exciting and well written. Even though the book was almost 400 pages long, the action was continuous, fast-paced and engaging. My only complaint was that I felt the contaminating of the water supply was an extreme action that didn't seem realistic for the time period. Typhoid was considered a terrible disease in the late 1800's. Poisoning the water supply would have led to thousands of deaths. Could some person really have been that nefarious?
Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Contagion and I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction.
Contagion by Joanne Dahme
Running Press Teens 2010