By C. C. Humphreys
England in the seventeenth century was a wild and dangerous place, making it a perfect setting for the latest historical thriller from C. C. Humphreys.
The year is 1665 and the story opens with gentleman-thief and ex-cavalier Captain Coke being pursued by bounty hunter and ex-roundhead Pitman. Pitman, a former member of the Ranter sect turned Quaker, has a growing family to feed, and the price on Coke’s head goes up considerably after one of the highwayman’s robberies is derailed by the intervention of a bloody-minded religious fanatic with a fixation on the end of days. Meanwhile, back in London, actress Sarah Chalker (a friend of a friend of Coke’s) is drawn into a web of violence that eventually extends all the way up to the royal family. She will need the assistance of both Coke and Pitman it she wants to survive.
The novel comes on like a theatre piece, complete with prefatory Dramatic Personae. Among these, Captain Coke is well cast as the hero, his flamboyant dress and habit of smoothing his moustache making him appear like “something off the stage.” Even more than this, however, Plague feels like the screenplay for a buddy picture: one that has thief and thief-taker joining forces to take down a vicious serial killer in the atmospheric setting of London’s dirty, plague-stricken streets.
Humphreys does a great job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of a labyrinthine London, and makes good practical use of history throughout. That is to say, it’s not a novel that feels thick with research but one that wears its reading lightly, employing history for dramatic effect. Particularly well handled is the fallout from the religious diversity that sprouted up during the Civil War.
There are some improbabilities in the plot, but the action-packed pace is such that they scarcely have time to register, and the finale comes with a nicely executed twist. Overall, the mix of plague and puritans with the flavour of popcorn makes for an entertaining treat.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2014.