The Plague Road | L.C. Tyler | 2016, Pb 2017 | Constable | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1665 and London is at the mercy of the Plague. Swathes of the city have become no go areas, many of the houses sealed with a cross on the door, a warden keeping watch for any who dare risk an escape from a house that has been damned by disease. But, despite the increasing death toll, life is still not regarded as completely cheap and when it is noticed that one of the corpses thrown into a plague pit has a knife sticking out of his back justice must be seen to be done. It is possible that this enthusiasm might have been encouraged by the fact that the man was known to have been carrying a secret letter, now missing, from the Duke of York (the King’s brother) to the French Ambassador. Nonetheless, John Grey, lawyer and sometime agent for Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, is given the case to solve. What did the letter say? Who has it now? What on earth was the Duke of York up to? No doubt the dead man matters to someone, somewhere, but never mind that, where is the letter?!
Several years have passed since the events depicted in A Masterpiece of Corruption. Back then, Cromwell was in power and Grey was forced into the unenviable role of double agent. Life is simpler now after the Restoration even if political or religious beliefs must continue to stay secret. Republicans, such as Grey, have been re-accommodated into public life. But it is early days. People still fear another outbreak of civil war and the Duke of York’s behaviour isn’t helping matters. Neither, for that matter, is the Plague.
The Plague Road might be the next novel in the John Grey series by L.C. Tyler but it stands very well alone. It continues the unconventional relationship between Grey and the royalist Lady Aminta Pole but otherwise, in many ways, this novel begins things afresh. And it is populated by some fascinating characters, especially Samuel Pepys, the glamorous Lady Castlemaine and the rather extraordinary Father Horncastle who does more than anyone to stir up trouble during these pages.
In my opinion, The Plague Road is a big step up from its predecessor. I found A Masterpiece of Corruption over complicated and a little dry in places. I had no such issues with The Plague Road. This novel is wonderfully plotted and structured, the pace maintained throughout, and it is deliciously witty. It’s a dark story at times, which is all to the good, but it is enlightened by John Grey’s fabulous turn of phrase, particularly when he has to deal with people who bore him. I chortled regularly while reading The Plague Road, not something I expected to say about a book immersed in Plague, murder and conspiracies.
I couldn’t read The Plague Road fast enough, it is such an engrossing novel, immersed in its period. Its descriptions of the Plague and its pitiable victims are grim but I couldn’t look away, and just as horrifying are the scenes which demonstrate the impact of the Plague on communities around London and in the countryside. During the novel Grey must travel to Salisbury, a journey that in these times is almost impossibly difficult and dangerous to complete. And yet the fear is totally understandable, if ugly, and it’s captured so well here.
I felt that I got to know John Grey and Aminta Pole much better in The Plague Road and I grew to like them very much indeed. This series has come into its own and I’m most definitely looking forward to more as L.C. Tyler escorts us through these most troublesome and fascinating years in England’s history.
A Masterpiece of Corruption