WHO WOULD MURDER THE DYING…
London, 1665. Hidden within the growing pile of corpses in his churchyard, Rector Symon Patrick discovers a victim of the pestilence unlike any he has seen before: a young woman with a shorn head, covered in burns, and with pieces of twine delicately tied around each wrist and ankle.
Desperate to discover the culprit, Symon joins a society of eccentric medical men who have gathered to find a cure for the plague. Someone is performing terrible experiments upon the dying, hiding their bodies amongst the hundreds that fill the death carts.
Only Penelope – a new and mysterious addition to Symon’s household – may have the skill to find the killer. Far more than what she appears, she is already on the hunt. But the dark presence that enters the houses of the sick will not stop, and has no mercy…
V. L Valentine’s The Plague Letters opens with the Reverend Symon Patrick, newly returned to London by order of his patron and regretting both his enforced return and his separation from the vivacious Elizabeth. Symon returns to a city filled with fear and a household in uproar – during his absence, bubonic plague has arrived and Londoners are fleeing to the country if they can. And in the midst of the chaos, one of Symon’s maids has gone missing.
When the missing maid turns up dead, no one – least of all Symon – is surprised. The body shows unusual signs – a shaved head, strange inked markings, signs of restraint – but London is full of superstition, quacks, and dubious medicines. But when another young woman arrives in the same condition, Penelope – a new and quick-witted addition to Symons household – forces the reluctant reverend to take notice of the possibility of a killer in their midst. Someone, it seems, is attempting a series of misguided experiments in an attempt to rid London of the plague – and they’re more than happy to trial their ‘medicine’ on human subjects.
Desperate for answers, Symon is forced into an unlikely alliance. A group of medical ‘professionals’ – an eminent physician, a well-known surgeon, a charismatic ‘healer’, and a pioneering apothacary – have formed The Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague. Despite their differences – and their personal eccentricities – these men seek to end London’s suffering. But is a killer hiding in their midst?
There were times, especially early on, when I wasn’t quite sure what sort of book I was reading with The Plague Letters. By turns gorily vivid in its descriptions of the deprivations bought about by the London plague, the next page might see a farcical comedy play out as the filthy surgeon Mincey starts a fistfight with drunken apothecary Boghurst, or court favourite Valentine Greatrakes flounces into the room with a knowing smile and a witty retort. Turn the page again and you’re in the midde of a romantic drama, as Symon continues his illicit correspondance with the flirtateous – and very much married – Elizabeth. It’s as if V. L. Valentine has reached into 1665 and pulled out a slice of London life, upending it onto the page in all of its chaotic, messy, and gruesome glory.
Get used to the sudden lurches in tone however, and The Plague Letters offers a rich and rewarding mystery enveloped alongside deeply evocative depiction of plague-ridden London. The characters, whilst not always especially likeable, leap off the page, pulling the reader into their messy lives – and into their hunt for an increasingly unhinged killer. V. L. Valentine has a real eye – and ear – for the strange and the absurd, brilliantly capturing both the dark humour and the grit of the bodily experiences evoked on the page.
Symon makes for an interesting – and occasionally infuriating – main narrator. Suffering from melancholy and increasingly embroiled in relationships he neither fully understands nor fully appreciates, he is a man whose inner demons constantly wrestle with his better angels. Once paired with clever, mysterious Penelope however, Symon soon begins to untangle his knotty mess of life choices and I enjoyed seeing the pair’s relationship develop from antagonistic tolerance to trust over the course of the novel. Although the ending leaves many of the personal mysteries within the characters lives opaque or unresolved, I still felt as if I had got to know – and even to like – these flawed and changeable people by the of the book.
The eccentricity of style – that alignment of the grim and the grimly funny – may put some people off The Plague Letters but settle into this novel and you’ll find a cleverly-plotted mystery, some fantastially realised characters, and a deeply evocative depiction of seventeenth-century London. It’s as if Imogen Hermes Gowar’s sublimely eccentric The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock had been combined with the tension of Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London and the mystery of Antonia Hodgson’s A Devil in the Marshalsea. Fans of historical crime will find much to delight in – as will anyone who enjoys being dragged in to a book and taken along for a wild and unpredictable ride!
My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to the publisher for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 12 April so check out the other stops on Twitter and Instagram for more reviews and content!