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Bookends: Murder and the Black Death February 7, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Murder and the Black Death

By Dan Davidson

October 14, 2015

– 837 words –



By C.C. Humphreys

Doubleday Canada

362 pages



When C.C. Humphreys was mentoring at last spring’s Young Authors’ Conference in Whitehorse, he was energized on the second day by the news that Plague, his recently published historical mystery/thriller novel, had been nominated for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Awards best novel prize. The long list for the 2015 award, which is offered by the Crime Writers of Canada, was pretty extensive, comprising some six dozen books by Canadian authors. I was only familiar with the work of maybe six or eight of them, but it seemed that Chris was in good company.

Plague was one of the books I took with me on our recent vacation trip. Well, now it emerges that he has topped the list and won the best novel prize. This may have been announced earlier, but I just decided to check the website today, when it was this book’s turn to arrive in Bookends.

Humphreys has a love of historical fiction, and his novels, whether adult or young adult, often have historical settings. He writes fantasies, time shift novels and plain old historical fiction, but Plague really does fall into the mystery/thriller category.

There are several central characters, and not all of them are males. We first meet a highwayman, a former soldier who goes by the nom-de-guerre of Captain Cock, which is just way too close to his actual name: William Coke. He’s kind of a Robin Hood character, though the deserving poor tend to be restricted to himself and his young assistant. What he finds in the coach he sets out to rob leaves him retching in the roadway.

Hard on his heels is a thief-taker (think bounty hunter) by the name of Pitman, also a former soldier. We’re at the tail end of the dynastic wars in England, and Charles II has been the restored Stewart king for about six years. There are a lot of ex-soldiers, who might have fought on either side during the civil war. Pitman is also a part time constable, and he has a growing family to feed. Because he thinks that Coke is responsible for the awful slaughter in that coach, he seeks him with more that usual diligence.

The other central character is Sarah Chalker, an actress whose fate eventually binds the two men together in a search for the man who murdered her actor husband. It is the details of this death, so strikingly similar to those in the coach, that convince Pitman Coke is not his man.

Sarah fends off the advances of a nobleman who wants her, and she mourns the loss of her husband when he ignores her cautioning, sets out to defend her honour, and is killed. But she has fought to gain her place in the theatre, where women have only just been allowed to be players, and she uses all her skills to protect herself when more danger comes her way. In a very real sense, she rescues herself in the end, before her two champions can find her.

As is often the case in this type of mystery, we also spend some time in the head of the villain himself. We actually spend more time than we think we do, but that doesn’t beome clear until later in the story. Through his point of view we get a good sense of the religious fanaticism that is fueled by the certainty, among some folk, that the plague is the judgment of God on the hedonistic lifestyle that Charles’ reign ushered in after the strict Puritanism of Cromwell’s regime. For them the Second Coming of Christ is imminent. We see how such deluded reasoning can be used to justify all manner of evil, and have the perpetrators still believe in their own righteousness.

Humphreys is very good at setting scenes. Whether we are in the country, in crowded tenements, at the theatre, near the court, in the squalor of the bad parts of London, or in Newgate Prison, we feel that we are there. We catch the flavour of the era (London, 1665) and feel the passage of time.

We understand the fear of the Black Death and suffer with Pitman when he returns from an unsuccessful pursuit to discover that the house in which his family lives has been marked for quarantine.

I found it particularly interesting how two men who were set to be adversaries as the book began found a common greater cause to unite them and did their best to work together to that end, overcoming all the many obstacles that the time and society placed in their way.

After a rousing opening sequence Plague slowed down a bit in the first third, but it really picked up after all the various points of view were set in motion, and held my attention to the end. Seems like a lot of other people liked it too.










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