Book review: History, mystery and murder most foul

The Plague Road
The Plague Road
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As the autumn nights draw in, enjoy the dark delights of two cracking historical crime mysteries… one with a right royal twist, and one with some unexpected comedy.

The Plague Road by L.C. Tyler

A funny thing happened on the way to the plague pit…

If that sounds like a tasteless oxymoron, then you haven’t yet enjoyed the black humour and dark deeds that make L.C. Tyler’s dazzling John Grey historical mysteries such an original and unmissable treat.

Perhaps best known for his superb Herring comedy series starring hilarious author and agent duo Ethelred Tressider and Elsie Thirkettle, Tyler is a crime writer extraordinaire and chair of the Crime Writers’ Association.

His current speciality is the John Grey series featuring a young, cynically clever lawyer operating clandestinely in the dangerous world of royal espionage during the early reign of the newly restored King Charles II and frequently finding himself caught up in labyrinthine skulduggery and daring double dealing.

And what we get is Tyler at his entertaining best… a Restoration romp delivered with aplomb and verbal artistry, a delicious slice of history in all its dark, dank and deadly reality, and a veritable stage show of witty one-liners wrapped up in an enthralling mystery adventure.

In the hot summer of 1665, the Great Plague has London in its grip. The city’s houses are sealed up, there are red crosses on doors and the smell of rotting flesh is in the air. Everyone who can has fled and the only sounds are the tolling bells and the incessant cry of ‘Bring out your dead!’

So where better to hide a murdered man than amongst the corpses on their way to the plague pit, particularly a man on an undercover mission to deliver a highly inflammatory letter?

John Grey, now a successful lawyer, is called in by Henry Bennett, Secretary of State Lord Arlington, to investigate an unexpected body found at theTothill plague pit. Identified as Charles Fincham, an actor and secret agent for Arlington, he had been carrying a letter from the Duke of York to the French ambassador.

Arlington wants the letter found and is prepared to pay Grey a large sum of money to track it down because the contents will compromise not only the duke, suspected of being a closet Papist, but many others around him.

But Arlington is not the only one trying to recover the letter. Somebody has killed once to try to obtain it and is prepared to kill again. The hunt propels Grey back into close contact with his former love Lady Amnita Pole, a playwright whose work ‘involves slightly less inventiveness’ than Grey’s own, and onward through the perils of plague-ravaged England…

Tyler certainly knows his stuff but, with a twinkle in his eye, he brings us history with the lightest – and most enjoyable – of touches. A fast-paced story, bristling with adventure, engaging characters both real and fictional, and a plot with devilish serpentine twists, mark out this sparkling series as historical crime with an excellent sense of humour.

(Constable, hardback, £19.99)

Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry

Another historical mystery writer with an adoring fan base is Anne Perry who has become the queen of the Victorian murder thriller in a career spanning over 30 years.

Her two best-selling and long-running series, one featuring police Commander Thomas Pitt and the other starring Inspector William Monk and his wife Hester, are immensely popular and have helped her become one of the most respected authors of historical crime fiction.

These thought-provoking, atmospheric and authentic whodunits harness the murky underbelly of Dickensian London with plotlines that draw unnerving and revealing parallels between the moral and ethical values of society today and those in the late 19th century.

Murder on the Serpentine is the 32nd novel in Perry’s perennially popular Victorian crime series featuring Commander Pitt, head of London’s Special Branch, and his upper class wife Charlotte whose connections to the landed gentry and aristocracy often help her husband in his investigations.

Here we find Pitt, a man of superior moral and ethical standing, called to Buckingham Palace in 1899 on what could well be his last mission for the elderly and rapidly failing Queen Victoria.

In the twilight of her years, Queen Victoria is all too aware that her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, will soon inherit her empire and must be beyond reproach. She tells Pitt that she had asked her close friend and confidante, Sir John Halberd, to investigate the Prince’s friend and newly acquired adviser Alan Kendrick, a wealthy playboy and betting man and ‘not an entirely satisfactory influence.’But before he could report back with what he said

was urgent information, Halberd was found drowned after mysteriously falling from a rowing boat on the Serpentine. The death has been ruled an unfortunate accident and the investigation closed but the Queen is not convinced that all is as it seems and wants Pitt to find out the truth.

Forced to act alone in this most sensitive of investigations, Pitt finds himself embroiled in a plot that threatens not only the reputations of men, but also the safety and reputation of the Empire…

Perry is never afraid to probe deep into the heart of 19th century darkness and here she directs her unflinching gaze on foul deeds at the highest levels of society. As always, the frailty of human nature takes centre stage in a story that is as exciting and tense as it is revealing and thought-provoking.

Crime mystery with a social conscience…

(Headline, hardback, £19.99)