PLAGUE by C.C. Humphreys (Doubleday), 352 pages, $24.95 paper. Rating: NNN
If you're a history buff who likes adventure and a story that rips right along, hunker down with C.C. Humphreys's Plague. It's got all of the above and, bonus, much of it is set in the theatre.
In plague-ridden 1655 London, a brutal killer is on the loose, the kind who tortures his victims, leaving a gemstone in the corpse's mouth. Highwayman Coke appears to be the main suspect, but when bounty hunter Pitman realizes Coke's not his man - he may be a pro but he never carries a loaded gun - the two join forces to find the murderer.
This novel is set during the reign of Charles II. Women have just been allowed onstage, and Sarah Chalker is the talk of the town. She's being pursued by the creepy Garnthorpe, who's part of a growing religious conspiracy to assassinate the king and replace him with King Jesus. When Chalker's husband goes missing and is found dead - with a gemstone in his mouth - Pitman and Coke start making connections.
Historical fiction expert Humphreys has a firm grip on the material - the sights and sounds of London, especially the terrors of Newgate Prison, the public paranoia the plague induces - and he definitely knows narrative. This is a hard one to put down.
Humphreys does succumb to some irritating tics: people getting interrupted just as they're about to offer crucial information that could solve the case; not much depth of characters - people are either good guys or villains; and a narrative hole leaves room for a sequel.
Don't let that deter you. This novel screams "summer reading."
C.C. Humphreys talks about Plague on Tuesday (July 22) at Dora Keogh. See book listings.