A serial killer stalks the streets of London, stabbing gems into the mouths of the slaughtered. With murder, though, walks a friend – plague. The year is 1665 and the city reels under an onslaught of murder, poverty and disease. On the fringes dance the rich. The newly restored monarchy, epitomised by the bewigged and hedonist Charles II, is surrounded by fellow pleasure-seekers who jig their way through the reopened theatres. Everyone, from King to actor, thief and pauper remembers the recent wars. They have left their mark and in many cases a debt.
Captain Coke is a gentleman but he is also a highwayman, albeit one with a bulletless pistol. He does good, adopting as his own his rather gormless apprentice Dickon, teaching the boy to read using sensationalist leaflets, the only literature the boy is interested enough to struggle through. When Coke discovers the bodies of his next intended victims slaughtered upon the highway, he finds one just alive, a young woman who dies in his arms. He flees but he cannot forget. Although Coke should hide, particularly once the thief-taker Pitman catches his scent, he is unable to resist the pleas of friend Sarah Chalker, whose husband John, an actor, is missing.
And all the time, more and more houses are sealed up, their inhabitants locked inside, keeping company the corpses of their relatives killed revoltingly by the hungriest of plagues.
Plague is rich in atmosphere, you can almost smell the stink of the stews and the sickly perfume of the rich. Much of the novel is spent in the poorer streets of the city or in its theatres among the actors and their audience. It’s a far from glamorous society with actresses preyed upon by nobles but it is a world away from the horror of the squalid rooms where the sick die of plague or the tortured die of agony. There are some wonderful cameos here, especially the King and his libertine poet Rochester. I also thoroughly enjoyed the conflicted character of Captain Coke. This is a man who is tormented by his memories from the recent wars – after what he’s gone through how can he live a normal life? Pitman, too, is an interesting character, especially once he has formed a partnership with his prey, but it is Coke, painfully haunted, who stands out for me. Amongst the many believable men and women, though, there are melodramatic, sinister figures, not least the man that Coke must chase.
This is a violent novel and, not surprisingly considering its subject matter, it is exceedingly grim in places. C.C. Humphreys does not flinch from his depictions of murder, torture or plague symptoms. I liked the historical setting enormously and much of the characterisation and narrative but it did cross my squeamish barrier at places, although admittedly it is not a barrier set high. I do think, though, that Plague will be much enjoyed by readers of historical crime fiction.