Book Review: Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Plague is set in the year 1665, five years after Charles II has been restored to the throne and is the first of a trilogy.

The after effects of the English Civil War are still felt, but Charles II has eased the austere lives of the people by allowing entertainment. The theatre is once again popular with all classes of society, even more so now that women are allowed on the stage.

William Coke, an ex-Royalist, unable to recover his estates lost during the English Civil War, takes to the road as a highwayman. Unfortunately, the next coach he and his accomplice, Dickon, hold up contains a nasty surprise that sickens this hardened war veteran.

Blamed for the horrendous crime and with a reward on his head, Coke decides to leave London, but first visits Lucy Absolute, the sister of his dead friend, to whom he acts as guardian. Those who have read Humphreys’ previous novels, Shakespeare’s Rebel and the Jack Absolute trilogy, will appreciate the name tie-in.

Lucy Absolute, an actress, asks Coke to search for John Chalker, who has disappeared. Chalker is a well-respected actor and husband of an actress, Sarah Chalker. Reluctantly Coke agrees, but when he discovers the mutilated body of John Chalker in a squalid part of London and is subsequently apprehended by Pitman, a professional thief taker, for the crime he must convince his captor that he is not a brutal and sadistic killer.

Pitman is desperate for the reward money offered for the capture of Coke, but a number of discrepancies lead him to believe that Coke is not the man he is after. The two join forces in an attempt to clear Coke’s name. Aided by Dickon, Lucy and Sarah their investigation takes them into the world of the theatre frequented by Charles II and his courtiers, through the dingy and dangerous back alleys of London and even into Newgate prison.

When more bodies turn up, they realise they are looking for a serial killer with a special talent. Hampered by the outbreak of the plague, they eventually uncover a murderous plot by Fifth Monarchists, a religious cult who believe there is only one rightful king, Jesus.

Humphreys has populated this novel with a group of believable characters drawn from various ranks of 17th century London society.  Coke and Pitman make an unlikely team: one an ex-Royalist, the other a Puritan. However, even though on opposite sides of the law they have similar codes of honour.

The story takes an unexpected twist when Pitman becomes a wanted man himself. Not because he has committed a crime, but plague has come to his house and he must be found and locked in with his family. This adds more suspense and a sense of urgency to the novel, as both men must elude their pursuers long enough to complete their investigation.

I enjoyed this novel despite it being gruesome in parts. It is a novel of contrasts: the colourful and glittery world of the theatre and the dark and dirty slums of London. Humphreys’ excellent writing style and wry humour combine with a number of sub-plots, some romance, a great cast of characters, vivid descriptions and the introduction of the plague as another serial killer, to make Plague a great historical mystery. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in the series, Fire.

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