The Plague Letters

Written by V. L. Valentine
Review by Janice Ottersberg

The plague is creeping through London, parish by parish. It is the summer of 1665, and those who can are escaping the city. Symon Patrick, the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, oversees the burials as the death carts arrive laden with bodies to be dumped in the pits. Penelope is ill and homeless, filthy, and starving when she seeks Symon’s help. As the death count rises and more plague bodies arrive daily, Symon sees the body of a young woman with loose restraints, grids drawn around cuts and burns on her body, objects sewn in wounds— “foot of a frog, toe of a dog, claw of a cat, wing of a bat”—a plague victim tortured and her death hastened. As more bodies with the same mysterious markings turn up, Symon must find the murderer.

What Valentine does exceptionally well is to merge the surroundings and atmosphere into the plot. She has given her characters life with lively, vivid descriptions, and witty, clever dialogue. Penelope, a small sprite of a girl, has recovered and now inserts herself into Symon’s investigations. She annoys him like a nit, shadows him, reads his mail, withholds letters from his beloved, and is free with advice. Symon is a kind, compassionate man distracted by his obsession with a married woman, and given orders by his household staff.

A newly formed plague society of four men wants Symon involved in their plan to procure bodies for experiments to find a cure. The arrogant Dr. Burnett, university-educated physician; Mincy, the grubby, malodorous barber-surgeon; Greatrakes, mystic healer, flamboyant and overdressed; and Boghurst, drunken apothecary, are all suspicious characters, especially in Penelope’s eyes. What reads so natural is the humor offset with the dark truths of the plague and human suffering. This is an exceptional novel of the plague with a mystery and one-of-a-kind characters.