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SD Sykes: Crime and Plague

SD Sykes on Crime and Plague

Murder in a time of death.

You might wonder why I chose to set my debut novel Plague Land, a story of murder, against the backdrop of a plague. And not just an ordinary plague… the Black Death, the worst demographic disaster the world has ever seen. A plague that’s estimated to have killed roughly half the people in Europe. Would a murder have mattered at this time? With so many dead already, would anybody have cared about yet another death?

To be honest, at the height of the Plague, in 1349, I don’t think they would have. A murder could easily have been ignored, or at least the investigation deferred. People had plenty of other troubles to contend with. They had no idea what was causing this ferocious disease, other than some sort of retribution from God, and they were simply overwhelmed by the number of dead. In some towns, plague victims were just thrown haphazardly into pits – sacrilege and horror indeed to a society that put such importance on a ‘good death.’ A person hoped to make a final confession, receive the last rites from a priest and then to be properly buried. Without a good death, a soul could not progress through Purgatory to Heaven – so you can see why it was not just an earthly plague that terrified them. Their chances of eternal life were at stake.

Plague Land is set in 1350, however. By this point in the lifecycle of the Plague, the mortality rate had fallen dramatically, and the world was beginning to find its feet again. And what’s really interesting about the aftermath of the Black Death is this. Society didn’t fall apart. It lumbered on somehow, as a shadow of its former self, but crucially it did not end.

So the next question might be – how did this happen? In the face of such an epidemic, why didn’t England disintegrate into chaos? The first and most obvious answer to this question is that, proportionately, far fewer of the ruling class died. As with most contagious diseases, the Plague took the majority of its victims in the squalid and cramped conditions suffered by the poorest in society – the peasants, the labourers and the artisans. These people already had compromised health, due to the continual famines of the early 14th century, caused by a series of wet years and poor harvests. They couldn’t isolate themselves and they had nowhere to run. They were ripe for the picking.

By contrast, the ruling classes didn’t live in such close proximity to one another. They were well fed and had the means and wherewithal to place themselves out of danger. At the news of the Plague, the King and his court retreated from London to Windsor. In fact, the only member of the royal family to die in this outbreak was Edward III’s daughter, as she travelled to Spain to honour a marriage contract. But, once it looked as if the Plague were over, the nobility soon came out of the woodwork – they weren’t going to let go of feudalism so easily. It had given them too much power and wealth.

Control was vital in this post-plague vacuum – control that was maintained through the rule of law. The Normans had introduced a complex system of local and regional courts after the 1066 invasion, and the wheels of justice were soon turning again. This new world was a depleted and dilapidated place, but importantly it retained its adherence to the law.

In Plague Land, when a young girl is murdered, the villagers cannot report this murder to the constable, as the man is dead and has not been replaced. Instead they turn to their young and hopelessly inexperienced lord, Oswald de Lacy – a boy who takes up the investigation, chiefly because there is nobody else to do it. When Oswald tracks down the perpetrator, he calls for the royal judge to come to the estate, and try the case. This takes longer than usual, but the point is this – the judge still comes.

Whilst it’s tempting to imagine an apocalyptic Hollywood-style aftermath version of the Black Death – deserted streets, marauding gangs and packs of skeletal dogs – this isn’t how things turned out. The Black Death may have put a fist into the face of the status quo, but old-style feudalism took nearly another two centuries to die.

So, as it turned out, 1350 was a really interesting place to set a crime novel. A shifting, anxious world that was still reeling from the impact of a terrible plague – but a place where justice for a murder victim still mattered.