Source: Review copy
Publication: 1st April 2021 from Viper Books
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
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…
Reading the Plague Letters, one can’t help but wonder if this is the author’s political satire upon the current pandemic. It isn’t, but there are parallels you can draw if you want to venture down that rabbit hole. The Rev Symon Patrick is a hapless buffoon, engaged in helping to find the cause of the deadly Great Plague that is laying waste to London in 1665, but he has not a clue and he and his doctor and apothecary acquaintances are foundering in the dark, trying all manner of bizarre remedies even as the better off move their families out of London. This plague is enduring and all told will kill a third of Londoners. There is fame and fortune to be had should one be the medical genius who discovers how to bring the Great Plague to an end.
As the plague ravages and spreads across London, we learn that it is not just disease that is killing off Londoners. For there is a serial killer in their midst. A killer, hiding in plain sight, in streets where the stench of death prevails above all the other smells of urine, rank decay and unwashed bodies.
Vikki Valentine’s book is not just a gruesome walk through pestilence and death; it has a sharp comedic edge to it that will have you laughing even as you shake your head at the ineptitude of our would-be hero. Interspersed with short extracts from Pepy’s diary and with Plague maps showing the spread of the plague at the top of each chapter, Valentine brings the weekly death toll into a horrible perspective.
Symon Patrick is the Rector of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden and is most hapless sleuth you will ever come across. This holy man is spending his time writing somewhat plaintive and slightly obfuscated romantic letters to Lady Elizabeth Gauden, a flirtacious married woman whose husband is often in town on business.
When the Rev Patrick should be caring for the sick and ensuring decent burials for the dead, his mind is taking him to a country estate where the object of his affections has most recently given birth to a son.
Symon’s maid goes missing, and though he fails at first to do enough to find her, despite the beseeching of his staff, he feels bereft when her body turns up, her blonde hair all cut off, her body burnt in places and marked with a grid and her wrists and ankles showing she has been bound. She has died of plague but has clearly been tortured.
Into this household Penelope arrives. She is a young woman who is clearly seriously unwell. She is filthy and clothed in rags. They think she is probably dying and take her in. But Penelope has stamina and determination and as she pulls through, she starts to have an impact on Patrick’s household.
She realises as a result of her own horrible experiences, what is important in life, and she knows that for Patrick, his calling is not being fulfilled by his mooning around after a woman he can never have.
With all the energy of a piece of wet lettuce, he allows Penelope to point out that there is a real and present danger in their midst and that there are more bodies turning up that bear the same marks as Patrick’s maid. It appears that someone is experimenting on live bodies that are plague infected.
Penelope has been through a great deal in her young life and she has learnt to live on her wits. This makes her very observant. She also, perhaps as a result of everything she has experienced, sees ghosts. She can’t talk to them, but they are ever present around her and she feels acutely that she has a duty to stop what is happening. In order to do that she has to harness the attention of Syimon Patrick; a task that does not prove easy.
Once she has alerted him to what is going on, he begins to see that the killer might well be one of the Plague Society. A doctor, surgeon or apothecary looking for a cure and prepared to anything to find one. He stumbles his way around suspecting his best friend, his colleagues, everyone he meets without applying sense or judgement.
It is left to the ever brave and resilient Penelope to lead Symon Patrick, often by the nose, on a journey that will lead him to the answers, though not without disasters and danger at every turn.
Vikki Valentine’s book has a great cast of memorable characters, some with wonderful names, and she beautifully evokes a London that is putrefying and carrying the stench of death through its streets.
I love the character of Penelope, whose lack of airs and graces contrasts so beautifully with the selfishness and greed of the men she meets, including most of the medical profession. She is a woman of action, when the men just stand around arguing about where to get the bodies from to experiment on in search of a cure.
Verdict: There are levels of satire and laugh out loud humour from cracking one liners here that lift this book above the mere historical whodunit. V.L. Valentine has a great sense of place and atmosphere and her plague infested London is dark and putrefying. Funny and fierce, this is a fab read.
V.L. Valentine is a senior science editor at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., where she covers infectious disease outbreaks such as the coronavirus pandemic, Ebola and the Zika. She has a master’s in the history of medicine from University College London. Her non-fiction work has been published by NPR, The New York Times, The Smithsonian Channel and Science Magazine.