I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Plague of 1665. I know that probably makes me sound morbid, but it’s true – with my interest in the history of medicine, I love reading about the theories suggested by 17th century people to explain what was happening to them, the weird and wonderful ‘cures’ they came up with and the impact of the epidemic on English society. So when I saw a novel called Plague in my library’s ebook catalogue, I was immediately intrigued, especially as it’s by C.C. Humphreys, an author I’ve been wanting to try since I saw Audra’s review of one of his other books, Jack Absolute.
Plague, I quickly discovered, is not simply a novel about the plague (although it’s always there in the background affecting the lives of all our characters in one way or another) but it’s also an action-packed historical mystery set in Restoration London.
In 1665, England is still recovering from the aftermath of the recent Civil War which had resulted in the execution of King Charles I. Although his son, Charles II, has now been restored to the throne, lots of former royalists are still struggling after losing everything in the war. One of these is Captain William Coke, who has had to resort to highway robbery to survive.
One night, Coke is surprised to find that his shouts of “stand and deliver” have no effect on the approaching carriage. The reason: the driver and the passengers have all already been brutally murdered. Coke takes an expensive necklace from the neck of one of the bodies before running away, but leaves one of his pistols behind in his hurry to escape. This is found by the thief-taker, Pitman, who becomes determined to capture Coke and receive the reward for bringing him to justice. We, the readers, know that Coke is innocent – but who is the real killer?
Two women also become embroiled in the mystery. One of them, Lucy Absolute, is the sister of a wartime comrade of Captain Coke’s. She is now an actress at a London theatre – and the mistress of the notorious Earl of Rochester. The other woman is Lucy’s friend, Sarah Chalker, another actress. When Sarah’s husband goes missing, the unlikely pairing of Coke and Pitman must work together to investigate his disappearance…and meanwhile, plague is continuing to spread through London. As the novel’s subtitle tells us, ‘murder has a new friend’.
Although the story deals with serious subjects such as murder, illness, robbery and treachery, and can be quite graphic at times, Plague is an entertaining novel that I found fun to read. Humphreys’ writing style is clear and engaging and I knew from the first page that this was a book I was going to enjoy. It’s always a relief when that happens! It’s a very atmospheric novel too, taking us from the dark, dirty cells of Newgate Prison and the squalid, claustrophobic homes of the plague victims to the splendour of the royal court and the drama of the theatrical world. Each location is brought to life vividly and realistically and the author doesn’t shy away from describing some of the less pleasant sights, sounds and smells of the period!
We meet lots of interesting characters in Plague, including some real historical figures such as Charles II and the fascinating Earl of Rochester. But my favourite was Captain Coke. He’s a complex, flawed character and I liked him from the beginning, even though we first see him as a highwayman and a thief. I enjoyed watching his relationship with Pitman develop from hunter and prey to unlikely partners. One aspect of the book I was less happy with, though, was the inclusion of a conspiracy plot involving a religious sect called the Fifth Monarchists. I think this sort of thing is overused in historical crime and I’m starting to get a bit bored with it. Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. The ending sets things up nicely for a sequel; I don’t know if there will be one, but I would like to have the chance to meet some of these characters again.