The new thriller by C.C. Humphreys opens in England in the year 1665. Gentleman thief and ex-cavalier Captain Coke is being pursued by Pitman, a bounty hunter and former roundhead with a growing family to feed. Luckily for him, the price on Coke’s head goes up 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 is drawn into a web of violence that eventually extends all the way to the royal family. She will need the assistance of both Coke and Pitman if she wants to survive.
Plague comes on like a theatre piece, complete with prefatory Dramatic Personae. This approach is perhaps unsurprising, given the author’s background as an actor (he has appeared onstage in London’s West End and on Coronation Street, among other places). 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.” More than this, Plague feels like the screenplay for a buddy picture, one that has thief and bounty hunter 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 the labyrinthine city, and makes good practical use of history throughout. That is to say, the novel does not feel thick with research, but wears its reading lightly, employing history for dramatic effect. Particularly well handled is the fallout from the religious diversity that sprouted up during the English Civil War.
There are some improbabilities in the plot, but the pace is such that they scarcely have time to register, and the finale comes with a nicely executed twist. The mix of plague and puritans with popcorn storytelling makes for an entertaining treat.