Plague by CC Humphreys

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Plague by CC Humphreys

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: The Plague of the title may only be a support act to the murder mystery in which Coke and Pitman are entangled but the Highwayman and the Thief Catcher are the best pairing since fish and chips. (And so much better for you!)
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Century
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780891422

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Highwayman Captain William Coke stops a carriage in the line of his chosen career and soon discovers he's not the first to have assailed it. The driver is dead and all those within have been brutally skewered. He flees the scene but unfortunately leaves a pistol behind. This is all thief-taker Pitman needs to arouse his interest and attempt to track the Captain down with a noose in mind. Meanwhile nature has an equally random mode of death that's soon to be let loose on London. This is 1665 and the Great Plague is about to begin.

CC Humphreys (Chris to his mum) is a Brit born in Canada who classes himself as an author, actor and swordsman. I can't speak with any authority on his epee technique, but his acting credits are as far apart stylistically as Zorro and Corrie. When it comes to his novels, however, I crave a moment to kick myself. The reason being Chris has written a plethora of historical fiction (including a YA trilogy) and I hadn't heard of him before this. Indeed, there is every reason why I and every other hist-fict fan should have done – this guy has the gift of teleporting readers through time.

In this case we're whisked back to a London in fear of dying nastily as houses are boarded up with ill and not-so-ill inhabitants inside. Once shut in, they hope that some kind heart will prevent starvation killing them before the black pustulent buboes do. (Oh yes, there is much pus and sundry other bodily fluids too!)

Indeed, you've probably guess this already but Chris' use of research is impeccable. Not only are we surprised that, even then, hygiene was associated with disease prevention (although they didn't know why yet), we also learn about the Ranters; a religious sect we will never forget.

In theory the heretical sect was dying out around 1600 but defiant stragglers remain five years later. They believe in God, a returning 'King' Jesus and a life without any moral restraint whatsoever. Without getting too theological, they felt that the all-encompassing forgiveness dispensed via the crucifixion meant they could do anything they wanted, including running around naked. As Coke and Pitman discover, their ideas also have more serious connotations.

We actually find out early on who commits the murders that send the Great Plague into a supporting role but are willingly hauled through the novel at gloriously breakneck speed while wondering about the murderous motives. Meanwhile we revel in the company as our chalk-and-cheese heroes try to put the pieces together.

Pitman (just the one name in a Morse-esque way) is a religious (non-Ranter) family man trying to put food on the table. This means catching people, his wage being the resulting bounty. He's serious and focused but exhibits a wonderful twinkle and derring-do under duress once he's encouraged to live a little.

Captain William Coke/Cock (the two surnames are interchangeable so be prepared for some smirk-worthy stylish single entendres) is a man haunted by the death of a dear friend during the Civil War and bound by a promise to care for the bereaved sister, a theatrical actress. (Dangerous profession, that!) William also cares for Dickon, an 11-year-old ex-pauper whose eagerness to read provides more smiles amid the mounting tension.

The characters come alive partly due to good writing and partly due to a very well-constructed set of back stories that made me check to see if there had been a prequel. There isn't but – subtle hint incoming, Mr H – it would make a great novel(s) if the opportunity arose to write it.

If you're looking for hist fict about the Great Plague, this may not be the one. However if you want a nail-biting historical thriller with some well-timed smiles in which the plague wanders around in the background randomly causing problems, you'd so want this!

My only niggle is that I'd have liked the resolution and loose-end-tying to have been less rushed. Is that enough to demote it from a 5* read? Nawww.

Thank you so much Century for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you'd like to stick with the 17th century theme, we recommend The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean. If you prefer the historical crime side, then we leap ahead to the 1820s via The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley.

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