V.L. Valentine’s visceral debut skilfully immerses the reader in the dread and despair of plague-ridden London during the stinking hot summer of 1665.
The story centres on Symon Patrick, the young Rector of St. Paul’s in Covent Garden, and his discovery that, among the plague dead brought to his churchyard, one has been tortured and murdered. Her hair is shorn, her body cut and burnt, with twine bracelets and anklets attached – the desecration mapped by ink lines drawn across her skin like the work of a demon cartographer.
Patrick finds similar victims and, seeking help, joins the Society for the Prevention and Cure of the Plague – a colourful group of ‘medical’ men pledged to find an answer to the apocalypse visiting their city. It soon becomes clear their knowledge is as feeble as their methods as, in a city overwhelmed by corpses, they cannot secure a single one for examination.
There are echoes of Flann O’Brien as Valentine describes this hapless group undertaking their twin missions of finding the killer and a cure for the plague, each of which appears to be entirely beyond their grasp. In the midst of this, Patrick is given too much self-recrimination about his apparent inability to achieve either goal, which seems a little hard on him as the cause of the plague would not be identified for another 250 years. One senses, at times, that he enjoys these mental flagellations. Even in the final pages, he’s still at it: ‘How many times can a man be a fool’, he asks. At these moments, you really want to give him a slap.
One is just beginning to wonder where all this is leading when in steps Penelope, a waif and stray. She lands on Patrick’s doorstep as a bag of rags and bones but slowly emerges with the mettle and motivation to assist Patrick in his search. The hunt becomes more focused while, week by week, the charnel pits overflow, until the end of the trail is reached and the suspect confronted.
The ‘whodunnit’ element of The Plague Letters provides its necessary framework, but what remains with you long after is the heat, the stench of decay and lime, the fear and flight, leaving whole parishes deserted; and throughout it all, the dogged but hopeless sexton and his yard boys, each day stoically digging new pits amidst the rumble of approaching carts bringing ever more corpses. I can’t remember the last time a book had such a physical effect on me. I could almost feel at times Patrick’s difficulty in breathing as the choking miasma enveloped him.
Over 400 pages of such fare would be overwhelming, but for the antics of the Society which leaven the narrative. But such is Valentine’s skill, the addition of their surreal behaviour actually makes for a richer stew of disconcerting abnormality. And, in a wonderful twist, on the one occasion Patrick leaves London to escape, he finds that nothing is as it seems.
The true reality awaits him back in his parish.
Michael Ward is a journalist, academic and writer, and the author of the historical thriller Rags of Time.