When I first conceived the John Grey series, I started at the conclusion. I wanted to write about the skulduggery of the 1680s, towards the end of the reign of James II, when everyone was trying to decide whether to back the Catholic James or the Protestant William of Orange, and plenty of people were taking money from both. Then I started to think about the back story, and worked out that my narrator would have been a young man at the end of the Commonwealth, when everyone was trying to decide whether to back the ageing Cromwell or the threadbare young exile Charles Stuart, and plenty of people … Well, you get the picture. The C17th was neither moral not principled. That was what attracted me to it.
So the series started in 1657 and its third book, The Plague Road (published on 6 October), takes us to 1665. The narrator, John Grey, is now in his twenties and a successful if slightly bored lawyer. The Plague is raging in London and clients are few. When Secretary of State Lord Arlington asks Grey to undertake a tricky mission for him – escorting the devious and unpleasant spy Esmond Underhill to Salisbury, where the King has taken refuge – he accepts. Of course, there is a great deal about the mission that Arlington has omitted to explain. There are plenty of people out there who’d prefer it if Underhill gets nowhere near Salisbury. Or not alive anyway.
What interested me when writing the book were some of the parallels with today – especially the long lines of refugees fleeing for their lives and regarded with fear and suspicion at every town and village they reached. People took great pleasure in turning back those puffed up Londoners who sought to bring the Plague out into the countryside. Or you could just flog them food and drink at inflated prices – that was good too. There was also a thriving trade in travel passes, certifying that the bearer did not have the Plague in any way shape or form. You could use them yourself or sell them on at a profit to somebody who was a bit too sick to obtain one on their own behalf. Hopefully nobody would trace the pass back to you when the bearer dropped dead somewhere in Berkshire. The C17th was neither moral nor principled…
The Plague Road is published by Constable