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Book Review: Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Captain William Coke is a thief with a conscience. Never loading his pistol with anything more than powder, he carefully selects his victims from the wealthy and often the pompous. He and Dickon, a rescued street urchin, never expected to find their marks slaughtered on the road to London, but this killing is like nothing he has ever seen, not even on the battlefield fighting to restore his king to the throne in the English Civil War. Thief-taker, Pitman, is likewise shocked by the brutality of the murders from the highwayman he has come to see as a gentleman bandit. Now, Pitman will stop at nothing to find Coke, who has become known as the Monstrous Cock after the notorious murder, but the murders continue, and as the victims pile up, Pitman and Coke begin to realize this is a different kind of criminal, one who kills with religious symbolism. The two eventually team up to find the murderer. When the killer brutalizes and murders an actor, his wife and fellow actress, Sarah, is pulled into the path of the murderer and becomes an ally of the men who are chasing him. However, the would-be detectives face yet another obstacle when the Black Plague breaks out across the poverty-stricken parts of London. The three unlikely heroes must now dodge not only the law, but a serial killer, a deadly illness, and a heretical cult  in a search that will take them from the gutters to the palace.

The three protagonists of this novel are such contrasting, well-developed characters. Captain Coke, a man who robs for a living, has a heart of gold. He first meets Sarah when he is fulfilling a pledge by visiting and checking on Lucy, the sister of his closest friend Quentin, a fellow soldier who was killed nearly twenty years prior. Even when Lucy finds herself unmarried and pregnant, Coke doesn’t hesitate to help her though it means putting himself in harm’s way. He has also taken in Dickon, a boy with both physical and mental disabilities, and is willing to kill if need be to protect him. Coke is a criminal, but he is a kind and gentle man. Pitman, who has remarkable abilities, is ahead of his time with his crime scene investigations, and no one catches more thieves than him.  As a constable, he is responsible for shutting up the homes of plague victims with their families inside–infected or not. This causes great distress to the big-hearted Pitman. It is this kindness that can see the impossibility of Coke committing such terrible crimes, and though the two fought on opposing sides in the war and are now on either side of the law, the two develop an easy friendship, trusting each other with their very lives. Sarah Chalker owes much of her success as an actress to the protection of her husband, John. As childhood sweethearts, she and John have fought their way from the gutters of St. Giles to a place in the Duke’s Company, a theatre group frequented by Charles II himself. So when John is killed, the shear brutality of his murder makes Sarah more determined to find the vicious killer. She doesn’t hesitate to join with Coke and Pitman even though the search will put her in danger without the advantage of her male counterparts. 

Religion plays a huge role in the novel. On the heels of the English Civil War and the Restoration, London in 1665 was a place of great unrest. With the Act of Uniformity and the Act of Conventicles keeping dissenters from practicing anything other than the “accepted” Church of England within the city, all who choose to worship differently must do so in secret. This need for clandestineness provokes many to violence, including the Fifth Monarchists, who believe it their responsibility to bring about the Apocalypse and the coming of Jesus. With the year 1666 fast approaching, they see the end times in every facet of the city. From its sprawling corruption to its massive poverty, the city is prime for their brand of justice and a crescendo to what they see as the devil’s time.  It is among these “Saints” that the serial killer hides, committing his atrocities in the name of his religion. The religious symbolism connected to verses in Revelation is an interesting part of this thriller and truly takes the crime into the realm of the sinister. Chapters from the murderer’s point of view show this obsession for Apocalyptic cleansing for the sinful falseness of London. This obsession contrasts sharply with Pitman’s own religiousness. Pitman, a Quaker and therefore a dissenter himself, uses his religion for personal betterment. His beliefs create a stronger, kinder person rather than an evil killer, and the near-complete lack of religion in the other characters is another keen example of the duality present within the novel.

Plague is a thrilling ride through the gritty parts of seventeenth-century London, and readers of history and mystery alike will enjoy its shocking twist ending. 

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.