Recently I witnessed a performance of King Leir, the anonymous precursor of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leir has a happy ending that must have left the audience in cheerful spirits, but Shakespeare buried its story deep in the gloom of his own version. Louise Welsh has done much the same with Golden Age crime fiction, hiding one of its classic “cosy” narratives in an apocalyptic scenario.
A deadly infectious disease has conquered most of the world, but one of the rare survivors is Magnus McCall, trying to earn his living as a stand-up in London clubs. A misfortune lands Magnus in Pentonville and, while he is awaiting trial, the outside world collapses from “the sweats”. No warder answers his summons and Magnus must escape as best he can. Accompanied by Jeb, a mysterious hardman, he gets out into a silent London filled with bodies, and here Welsh gives a bravura account worthy of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.
Magnus, though a complex character, haunted by the drowning of a cousin, remembers that “good comics have ice in their souls”, which enables him to survive. In an abandoned five-star hotel, he finds an elderly American academic who longs to revisit the First Folio of Shakspeare’s plays in the British Library. This, Welsh implies, is the last survival of culture in a doomed world.
Magnus and Jeb ride out of the city and deep in the countryside discover a murder has occurred – straight from the pages of Agatha Christie, for the setting is an isolated group in a manor house. These survivors are led by a soldier-priest and include two attractive women – one of whom is indeed a pharmacist, as was Christie in her youth, though since Magnus proceeds to have passionate sex with her the resemblance presumably stops there. Somewhere in this group is the murderer, plus the mandatory “who’s next?” potential victim. Magnus solves the crime eventually, but we are not going to be allowed to close the book and go away satisfied, as Christie’s readers would have done. No, just as Shakespeare presented an audience expecting the cheerful version of Leir with the unremitting despair of his version, so Welsh takes us from the decorous country manor to hideous scenes of mob rule from which Magnus, the reluctant hero, must save his friend.
The plot gallops along and the writing crackles with the sights and smells of a sharply imagined world. Though I felt she spent too long on getting Magnus out of Pentonville, this book, the second in her Plague Trilogy, left me hungry for volume three.
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