SW Perry (left) whisks us away from our disease ridden present misery to – with almost supernatural prescience – the streets of London in 1593, where plague is also keeping the gravediggers and the parsons working around the clock! The late sixteenth century versions of plucky NHS employees come in the shape of Bianca Merton, a young Anglo-Italian woman who keeps The Jackdaw, a Bankside tavern (and who is also much in demand as a herbalist – a purveyor of what we now call alternative medicine) and her close friend Dr Nicholas Shelby, whose medical knowledge is more conventional.
The disease has, so far, gone about its malevolent business north of the River Thames, but with no daily calls for social distancing, it finds its way south:
“Her name is Ruth. She is returning to the lodgings on Pocket Lane that she shares with her husband. Ruth feels uncomfortable hot. By the time she reaches home, she will have a fever. She will awake the next morning to find painful swellings in her armpits. Young and strong, she is in the habit of thanking God for a strong constitution. But in a few days she will be dead. The pestilence has crossed the river.”
Bianca is much in demand among the worried residents of Bankside for her concoctions:
“Pomanders of rose leaves, tragacanth gum and camphor to hang around the neck … clove and lemon to mix in a posset . . . also a tincture of bezoar and sorrel. Mix that in water or small beer every morning.”
Nicholas, however, has been sent on a mission by one of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom – her spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. England has a complex relationship with what we now call Morocco, and in particular with the ruler of Marrakesh, but the death of Adolfo Sykes:
“..a small, somewhat bow-legged half-English, half-Portuguese merchant with a threadbare curtain of prematurely white hair that clung to the sides of his otherwise- unsown pate.”
… needs to be investigated, as Sykes is a key strand in Cecil’s silken – but deadly – web of spies and agents. When Nicholas finally arrives in Marrakesh, he discovers that Sykes had uncovered a slavery ring involving, among others a brutal and violent sea captain called Cathal Connell. Now that Nicholas is aware of the secret, it is only a matter of time before Connell and his accomplices come looking for him. While the unpredictable world of Moorish politics find him alternating between foul prison cells and a life of luxury surrounded by servants, back in London ….
“The pestilence has returned with a vengeance. The Savoy hospital has closed its doors to new patients and posted guards on the water stairs to deter visitors. The chapel’s death-bell tolls with increasing frequency.”
This is a richly rewarding novel, full of fascinating historical detail, but Perry never allows the authenticity of his main characters to be hidden beneath a superfluity of information about what they are wearing, or the contents of their dinner plate, or elaborate architectural descriptions. Bianca and Nicholas are separate from each other for most of the narrative, but each drives the story forward relentlessly. As we are only too well aware just now, plague knows no historical boundaries, but Perry’s skill as a storyteller is equally timeless – and magical. The Saracen’s Mark is published by Corvus, and is out now.