Updated: Apr 8
I am a big fan of non-Victorian or Tudor historical fiction. It felt like, for a long time, these were the only kinds of historical fiction publishers were buying, and it's been great in the last couple of years to see more variety in the market. The Plague Letters takes place in a particularly neglected and relevant point in history: the reign of Charles II, and the last hurrah of the bubonic plague.
The Plague Letters is a sort of murder mystery, taking place in locked-down London of 1665. It follows Symon Patrick, a vicar and one of the few remaining in London, as he and his mysterious companion, Penelope, attempt to find a medical person who has been experimenting on and killing the sick in order to find a cure.
The tone of the novel feels very much like the comedy of manners plays that were so popular during the period. Because of this, although the subject matter is pretty bleak -- especially when experienced by a reader similarly locked-down because of a plague -- the tone is almost always light and humorous. I was put in mind of George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo quite frequently. But where that book always felt a bit crass for the juxtaposition of death and toilet humour, perhaps it's the black humour we're all developing, or perhaps it's the Merry Monarch setting, but it works in The Plague Letters.
For me, the murder mystery itself was slightly less satisfying. If you're looking specifically for a historical crime novel, with emphasis on the 'crime', this may not be for you. But V.L. Valentine is taking on so many genre aspects - historical, humorous, ghost story, mystery -- that again, I didn't mind so much when the murderer's identity turned out to be quite straightforward. The mystery of Penelope -- her background, her mediumship, her future -- was for me, much more compelling.
The Plague Letters was a surprisingly enjoyable and fun read, given the current circumstances, and I would certainly recommend for anyone ready for a bit of bleak humour that aligns with but is pleasantly distant from the current crisis.
With thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for providing and advance review copy.
The Plague Letters is available to buy here.
This review is part of The Plague Letters' blog tour. Check out Meggy Roussel to continue on the tour!