Header collage featuring the cover of Bleak Water by Danuta Reah

Bleak Water

Is it murder, or is it art?

“Ten out of ten for terror.” – Northern Echo

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Images from an exhibition based on Breughel’s nightmare apocalypse, The Triumph of Death, start to be recreated in a series of murders.

Seal: Nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger award
Seal: Nominated for the CWA Steel Dagger award

Bleak Water

Bleak Water is set on the old Sheffield canals. Beyond the regeneration of Sheffield’s canal basin, the canal is overgrown, run-down and deserted. Signs of renewal creep along its towpaths, including, in Bleak Water, a small innovative gallery, Second Site, housed in one of the abandoned warehouses overlooking the tow path. Between the patchy areas of redevelopment, the canal is a dark and lonely place.


In Bleak Water, celebrated artist Daniel Flynn has created a series of images reworking Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s apocalyptic painting, The Triumph of Death. The Second Site is the perfect space to exhibit these.

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1562. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Public domain.

Bleak Water and The Triumph of Death

This medieval painting depicts the Apocalypse, where an army of skeletons create devastation across an already desolate landscape, where fires burn in the distance, wrecked ships lie in a decaying sea and in the background, bodies hang broken on wheels, bleak depictions of solitary deaths.

The Triumph of Death for a 21st century audience

For Eliza, curator of Second Site, the chance to show Daniel Flynn’s work is a coup. Breughel’s medieval masterpiece is dark and disturbing, but much of its symbolism and imagery is lost on a modern audience. Artist Daniel Flynn believes that Breughel’s horrific images are something that must be reimagined to restore its meaning in the 21st century. He wants to deconstruct the images and present them with ones that will speak to his audience the way Breughel’s images spoke to his.


But when the body of a young woman is found in the canal, Flynn’s nightmare images begin to spill out into the real world. Is this the work of a psychopath or is there a link between present horrors and the death of a young girl Eliza knew well four years ago? Still affected by the murder of her friend’s daughter, Eliza is drawn deep into the violence that seems to be surrounding the gallery.

This dark, tense and sometimes disturbing thriller, about one person’s obsession with death, explores themes of violence, art, and the legacy of trauma.

Photos of canal area, Sheffield © Pete Hawkins, used with kind permission.

How I wrote Bleak Water

My late husband, Ken Reah, was an artist, a painter. Living with him gave me an insight into how artists view the world, often not as complete images, but as patterns and shapes and the way they link together. He loved the contrasts offered by Sheffield, a city of Arcadian parks, but also of dark industrial remains, of rotting warehouses standing side by side with waterways where herons fished and wildlife flourished.


I wanted to write a book that looked at the world through the artist’s eye, but I struggled with the ideas for a plot until we spent a few weeks one summer in Madrid. We went to the Prado, and there I saw Pieter Breughel the Elder’s masterpiece, The Triumph of Death. I was familiar with it from reproductions, but reproductions don’t begin to convey the impact that the real painting has. It hung in one corner of the gallery, largely ignored, as visitors had mostly come to see the extraordinary images produced by Hieronymus Bosch which were the centrepiece of this particular room in the gallery.

Images of the apocalypse

The painting spoke to me. I was brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic world, and I was very familiar with the apocalyptic visions Brueghel was drawing on. Breughel probably believed the truth of what he was painting, as did his original audience. How relevant these would be to a modern audience was moot: they might see the bleak and truly horrific images as no more than the medieval equivalent of a gore-fest movie.

A modern apocalypse

It was Ken who commented that we needed a modern Triumph, one that would carry the same meanings for a current audience as Breughel’s painting did for his.

I began thinking: suppose an artist did that. Suppose there was a new art gallery opened in one of the abandoned warehouses on the often-deserted canal towpath. Suppose the nightmare images from the exhibition started leaking out into real life…

How to paint dead flesh…

I had my story. Ken was intrigued and gave me some tips from a renaissance handbook for artists on how to paint dead flesh. Artists are not like other people.

Bleak Water, Silent Playgrounds and Night Angels

A year later, Bleak Water was complete. As I had done with previous books in the series, I developed more minor characters into central ones. In this book, Detective-Constable Tina Barraclough takes centre stage. Tina is still traumatised by the events at the end of Silent Playgrounds, and is dealing with this by abusing alcohol and has developed a coke habit. Once seen as a promising young officer, her work has become sloppy and she is in danger of losing her job. A second character, Roy Farnham, the exploitative Detective-Inspector from Night Angels, is the senior investigating officer on this case. He is determined to solve this case and arrest the killer, but Eliza is afraid that this case can only be solved by someone who sees the world with an artist’s eye.

Some foreign editions of Bleak Water

Here are some of the foreign editions of Bleak Water. These may or may not be currently available – check your favourite bookseller.