Pandemic Reading Part 2: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

This book is definitely a little closer to home than The Last Hours, my previous pandemic read. A Lovely Way to Burn describes a modern-day pandemic – the kind that kills virtually everyone who catches it. Unofficially called ‘The Sweats’, it seems to have caught everyone off-guard. There’s no obvious policy for mask-wearing or lock-downs while people panic, party like there’s no tomorrow or carry on as usual.

In the latter category is Londoner Stevie Flint. We meet up with her at work, where she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel. After a busy day persuading people to buy guff they don’t really need, she is miffed to discover her surgeon boyfriend, Simon, has stood her up – no apologetic text or phone-call. Maybe their relationship has run its course, she wonders. Dropping by Simon’s flat to pick up a dress and some rather expensive toiletries she’d left in his bathroom, Stevie finds Simon’s dead body and calls the police.

The problem is, Simon doesn’t seem to have died of The Sweats. The police say it’s natural causes, and yet he was always so fit. Stevie is left to ponder how little she really knew about him, and then she gets sick. When, surprisingly, Stevie recovers she receives a letter from Simon – one of those ‘in the event of my death’ missals which sets her on course for a whole lot of trouble.

Simon worked in paediatrics – in particular, finding a cure for children with cerebral palsy, along with several colleagues who were also his closest friends. Having hidden a laptop containing sensitive information in Stevie’s flat, Simon has requested her to take it to a Mr Reah and absolutely no one else. When Stevie tries to track Reah down at Simon’s hospital, she finds he has died, and not surprisingly, that as a survivor of The Sweats, Stevie is medical hot property.

So begins a gripping cat-and-mouse story, as Stevie, believing Simon to have been murdered, attempts to discover the secrets on the laptop. There are people out to get her, she has to fight off more than one assailant, and take a punt on who to ask for help. In the background, London grinds to a halt, there are curfews and the army rolls in to help maintain order.

I wanted to yell at Stevie that she had to get in some supplies, fill her car up with gas and get out while she could. That she should find a cottage in the country somewhere with a big vegetable garden and maybe a henhouse; that her amateur sleuthing could wait. Simon would still be dead and in a week or two; chances are the evil perpetrator would likely enough be dead too. But then we wouldn’t have had much of a story here, would we?

A Lovely Way to Burn is the kind of book that has you in thrall from page one. It reminded me a little of The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan with our beleaguered heroine holding a secret she doesn’t understand that someone wants to kill for. And there’s the surviving against the odds aspect that ramps things up a gear. It may not be the book for you if you’re squeamish about disease, bodily fluids and the misery of knowing your number’s up and there’s nothing you can do about it. And rats, there are those too.

But however icky things got, I found I couldn’t put the book down. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first in Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy, and I shall look forward to checking in with Stevie again – she’s a great character. Will Stevie get out of London, find a bolt-hole to hide in while the world as she knows it disintegrates? What will the world like be after that? A new regime based on subsistence agriculture or will chaos prevail? I can’t wait to find out. Some copy-editing issues did slightly spoil my reading pleasure, so this one’s a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel set around the Bubonic Plague of 1348 if I hadn’t embarked on a reading challenge. You had to read a book about a pandemic and dodging dystopian themes I plumped for this historical novel – its tagline: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

Venturing into The Last Hours, I found myself thoroughly swept away into Middle Ages Dorseteshire. Of course I remember all those creepy, atmospheric crime novels of Walters I’d enjoyed years ago so knew she could spin a yarn.

Here we’ve got a dysfunctional family – at its head, lord of the manor, Sir Richard Develish. Bawdy, cruel and lacking any subtlety of thought, he believes he keeps his serfs productive by the threat of violence. But it’s his clever wife, Lady Anne, who works with the serfs to ensure productivity is high for the area, all the while keeping her husband’s potential to harm in check. It helps that she can read and he can’t.

Unfortunately, their daughter, Lady Eleanor, takes after her father in stupidity and general nastiness. At fourteen she has beauty and a small dowry. The plan is to marry her off to a local lord’s son in the hope that the union will win Sir Richard preferment, but the lad is said to be sickly. The story begins with Sir Richard setting out to visit his future son-in-law to see for himself. He is accompanied by his steward Gyles Startout and a small team of armed men to guard the dowry but when they arrive, it is soon obvious that people are falling sick.

Gyles, who acts as eyes and ears for his master and mistress, quickly spots there are good reasons to leave hastily, and the party take flight. But by the time they reach home, everyone is ill or left to die, except Gyles. Bringing news of her husband’s death, Gyles nurses the remaining soldiers and stays on the far side of the Develish moat, quarantining himself. Meanwhile Lady Anne decides to bring in all the serfs from their village to keep them safe. It’s effectively a lock-down.

Lady Anne is pretty smart, and maybe just a little before her time. She learnt to keep the sick separate from the healthy when she was growing up at a convent so keeping the world at bay and shoring up the moat are sensible moves. As well as good practices in hygiene, Lady Anne has taught many of the serfs to read, including tall, dark and handsome Thaddeus Thurkell. Growing up a serf and a bastard, young Thaddeus was maltreated by his adopted father, but fortunately rescued by Lady Anne. Now he’s her right-hand-man. As well as Gyles, it’s Thaddeus Lady Anne turns to for advice about protecting her people, and what to do when supplies run low.

The Last Hours is a rip-roaring read, full of danger and acts of valour, intrigue and secrets. You also get a good picture of social conditions of the time. The role of women as chattels of their landowning husbands. The place of serfs, often at the mercy of harsh laws and crueller masters and their priests who reinforce the status quo. Memories of the Norman conquest of barely three hundred years before still fester with those of French descent having the upper hand and often reviled for it. But times are a-changing and maybe all that is needed is a plague to sort out the sheep from the goats, the survivors from the doomed and to auger a new way of doing things.

I suppose I’ll find out in the sequel, The Turn of Midnight, now on my to-read list. The Last Hours is a tale of endurance and human ingenuity with characters you want to cheer for and all the suspense you need to keep you whipping through its 550-odd pages. A surprisingly quick read and an easy four out of five from me.