A first for the blog – see, 991 posts in and occasionally you still get something new. L C Tyler, a great mystery writer, friend of the blog and all-round nice chap, has just released the third book in the John Grey series of historical mystery-thrillers. There’ll be a review tomorrow (spoiler – it’s the best one so far!) but in the meantime, here’s an extract from the beginning of the book. Our hero hasn’t shown up yet, but it gives a vivid impression of the background to the tale, as well as Len’s line in gallows humour in the face of the Plague.
Many thanks to Len and to Constable for the review copy and for the permission to give the extract. You can read more of my reviews of his work on the cryptically named L C Tyler page – but before you go there, do read on…
London – Summer 1665
Jem wrapped his scarf more securely round his face and, in the dancing torchlight, surveyed the desolation before him. This wasn’t the sort of work he usually did, but it was work. Regular paid work. And there was little enough of that in London at the moment, what with most of the big houses shut up and all of the gentry fled to the country. It wasn’t heavy work either – not like ploughing or haymaking. And it was, you might say, a permanent position, in the sense that it would probably keep him in bread and ale until he died. Jem cautiously pulled the scarf down a couple of inches and repeated the invitation that he had been making all night to the citizens of London.
‘Bring out your dead!’ he called at the top of his voice. ‘Bring out your dead!’
The wagon behind him creaked and groaned as it rolled slowly through the grassy streets, its wheels grinding against the cobbles. It was full, but not too smelly, because they were doing regular collections now and usually got the customers loaded before they started to rot or fall apart too much. You wanted to get them into the cart and out of it again in one piece if you could. Of course they couldn’t complain about poor service, being as they were in various stages of putrefaction, but it was a matter of professional pride to Jem that head, body, arms and legs should if possible all go into the same pit, to be reunited in whatever manner God ordained on Judgement Day.
The light from the torches cast a hellish red glow over the lower floors of the shuttered houses. The upper storeys merged into the blackness of the night. No living creature stirred at this hour – not so much as a cat or dog. Jem hadn’t seen a cat or a dog for weeks, not since the Lord Mayor had wisely ordered a cull. There were plenty of rats, mainly on account of the lack of cats and dogs, but the cull had been necessary to make the city safe from the pestilence that was now in its third or fourth month – it was tricky saying when it had all started because for a long time nobody had wanted to admit that the Plague was in London, less still that it was in their own house, and the first deaths had been attributed quite imaginatively to all manner of causes. Two groats and a glass of ale got you a death certificate saying ‘consumption’ or ‘impostume of the head’, as you preferred; and coffin makers knew better than to enquire about why the deceased (cause of death: ‘teeth’) was quite so spotty. But Plague wasn’t something that could be kept secret for very long. When twenty people died of toothache in the same parish in the same week, folk began to smell a rat. Certainly nobody who strayed into London now could be in any doubt at all that things were not quite as they should be. Houses sealed up. Red crosses on the doors. And an all-pervasive smell of rotting flesh from the ones that nobody had found yet.