Crime fiction, like the rest of society, is torn between horror and fascination when it comes to depictions of plagues and epidemics. They are unimaginable events, both in their scope and their cruelty; they are the great equalizers, when they’re not exacerbating the gap between rich and poor; they kill indiscriminately, but provide opportunities and plenty of cover for others to kill quite discriminately. Mystery fiction, by exploring specific, “small” crimes against the backdrop of enormous societal traumas, can help us process the inconceivable—whether in the past or in the present.
The following novels are set against a backdrop of plague or feature mysterious spreading illnesses. Some are more relevant to our times than others—after all, Covid-19, unlike some of the illnesses in the following books, is not a psychological malady—but all should help us slowly begin to process the enormity of our current situation (and perhaps help us feel just a bit better about the odds, compared to those of the past).
The Fever, Megan Abbott
Setting: Middle America, Contemporary
Epidemic: Mysterious Seizures
When a popular girl gets a mysterious illness, soon everyone else is falling sick too. Megan Abbott delights in exploring the dark worlds and strange interior landscapes of teenage girls, and The Fever, part of a cycle including Dare Me and The End of Everything, is par for the course as Abbott takes us to some terrifying places.
The Last Hours, Minette Walters
Setting: England, 1348
Epidemic: The Black Death
While The Last Hours takes place in 1348 at the cusp of the Bubonic Plague’s entrance into the British Isles, the methods used to fight the rapidly spreading disease look much like today’s quarantine. An educated noblewoman married to a brutish knight is put in charge of the castle when her husband rides off with his entourage to serve the king. When she finds out a plague is spreading, she and her allies impose a strict quarantine, even as her husband and his men, kept out of the village, begin dying of the disease. Will she be able to protect her community? Or will her rebellious daughter and other forces expose them all to danger?
The Illness Lesson, Clare Beams
Setting: New England, 1870s
Epidemic: A Variety of Symptoms
Like Megan Abbott’s The Fever, or some theories about the teen girls whose accusations jumpstarted the Salem Witch Trials, The Illness Lesson explores a different kind of contagion—that of the popular girl’s suffering, imitated by her acolytes (although in this case, the women’s illness is also explored as a form of rebellion against domesticity). The Illness Lesson takes place in a 19th century educational experiment, where a number of young women gather at a former utopian community to study at a new school meant to educate women as well as their male counterparts. Education, however, does not signify freedom from future female drudgery, and the bored teenagers soon begin manifesting their budding feminist rage as ticks, seizures, rashes, barefoot walks in the snow, and rebellious self-harm. Brilliant, fascinating, and complex.
Fever Season, Barbara Hambly
Setting: New Orleans, 1833
Plague: Yellow Fever
I love Barbara Hambly’s whole Benjamin January series—I was first recommended it on a trip to Louisiana with my family, where it was described as one of the most compelling and historically accurate series around, and it did not disappoint—my whole family fell in love with the protagonist and his complex antebellum family. Dr. Benjamin January is a physician and free man of color in 1830s New Orleans; his sister and mother are both mistresses to white slave-owners, with whom they have complicated relationships defined by skewed power dynamics and tempered by occasional affection, and Dr. January spends his time solving murders for the large population of free people of color when he’s not tending to their medical needs. In Fever Season, New Orleans is in the midst of a terrible yellow fever epidemic, and Benjamin January notices that as the dead pile higher, some bodies are turning up that are decidedly not the victims of disease. Tie in a real-life house of horrors and you’ve got one heck of a novel, with important lessons about the disproportionate impact of disease on minority communities that is sadly still relevant today.
City of Ash and Red, Hye-Young Pyun
Setting: Nameless Contemporary City
Plague: All we know is, the rats carry it too…
Hye-Young Pyun wrote City of Ash and Fire after the smaller pandemics of the early years of the century, but man does it pack even more of a punch today. A rat catcher is sent by his employer to a nameless city where his talents are required to contain an epidemic. No sooner does he get there, however, then he is thrown into quarantine, made stateless by the plague and unable to return to his home after suspicion falls upon him for the mysterious death of his wife.
Orleans, Sherri Smith
Setting: New Orleans, near-future
Plague: Delta Fever
This book is so cool! In a post-apocalyptic New Orleans, now known simply as Orleans, people are divided not by race or class but by blood group, as a terrible new disease known as Delta Fever spreads that affects each blood group to a different degree. Newborns are free of the disease for at least the first few days of life, and the most ravaged blood types seek transfusions from the uninfected to allay their symptoms. A teenage girl with the evocative name of “Fen de la Guerre” is tasked with getting a baby across the wall dividing the disease-ridden Gulf Coast from its northern neighbors, who have cut off entry from the Deep South, where few are believed to have survived. In the process, she discovers more than she ever wanted to know about the horrifying origins of the disease from a mysterious scientist isolating himself on a remote island. Orleans may be labeled YA, but it’s wild creativity and poetic fury is for readers of all ages.
A Beautiful Poison, Lydia Kang
Setting: New York City, 1918
A Beautiful Poison takes place during the last great pandemic—the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. As the epidemic rapidly spreads through New York City, a socialite desperate for distraction from her coming engagement teams up with an apprentice medical examiner to examine a number of suspicious deaths in her social circle, attributed to the disease but quite possibly stemming from the most unnatural cause of murder.
The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe
Setting: The Abbey of Prince Prospero
Epidemic: The Red Death
Like the upper classes of today, those who try to escape the Red Death in Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece (often, strangely enough, told to me as a bedtime story when I was a child—I loved hearing the final reveal) instead bring the disease with them. At a masked ball, a mysterious man dressed as Death in red is spotted as partygoers begin to fall ill and die. I don’t think I’m spoiling this one when I let y’all know that the guy dressed as Death is, in fact, Death. This is Poe’s homage to the many images of the Dance of Death that proliferated in medieval and early modern Europe, then returned to fascinate in the gothic-obsessed 19th century and bloody 20th century.
The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera
Setting: Unnamed Mexican City, Post-Apocalyptic
Plague: An Epidemic Spread by Insects and Bodily Fluids
Wow, this one might be the most disturbingly relevant on the list. A hard-boiled go-between negotiates a truce between rival gangs in an unnamed Mexican city as an epidemic rages and the cartels attempt to protect themselves and bury their dead. So yeah, what’s happening right now. I guess this one won’t be much comfort…but it is beautifully written, the characters are memorably drawn, and they are even more memorably named (there’s a guy named Dolphin because he was shot in the lung and now makes a squeaking sound when breathing).
Plague Land, S.D. Sykes
Setting: Kent, 1350
Plague: The Black Death
As a stunned England begins to take stock of the Bubonic Plague’s ravages, the third son of a nobleman previously destined to become a monk must instead return to the manor house of his early years to take over after his father and two brothers die of the Black Death. He’s immediately beset with myriad difficulties, as his unmarried sister and powerful mother attempt to guide his hand, and his rebellious tenants demand more rights. While Plague Land is about the most devastating epidemic to ever occur in the world, the fact that it takes place after the plague is over should be a strange sort of comfort, for at least it can remind us that plagues, like all things, must end.
Sleepless, Charlie Huston
Setting: Alternative Dystopian Present-Day California (circa 2010)
Plague: Sleeplessness Caused by Infectious Prion
Sleepless is based on a real disease that currently affects only a few families in the world, but in Charlie Huston’s imaginative dystopian novel, published in 2010, the protein-based disease has grown to infect 10% of the world’s population, who experience a horrific, four-stage decline as their inability to sleep gradually kills them. An LAPD cop works to track down the mysterious manufacturer of “dreamer,” the only drug that helps the afflicted obtain some temporary rest, and in the process, begins to discover more than he ever wanted to know about the origins of the plague. Those who enjoyed Huston’s Joe Pitt series will find Sleepless to be less humorous and more contemplative, but just as well-written.
A Murderous Malady, Christine Trent
Setting: London, 1853
Christine Trent’s Florence Nightingale series features the OG nursing hero as she runs around London trying to stop a cholera epidemic, and in the process, begins to investigate the mysterious death of a coachman who may have possessed information about the origins of the plague that others wish to keep secret.
Fever, Deon Meyer
Setting: South Africa, Post-Apocalyptic
This one might actually be comforting, since the virus is so deadly compared to our current pandemic. After 90% of the world’s population is killed by a vast and overwhelming epidemic, survivors find their way to a safe haven isolated enough to protect them from the plague. Internal divisions soon mount, however, and the protagonist’s father, the founder of the community, is murdered. Half a century later, the narrator investigates the crime, trying to parse the events of his teenage years into some kind of sense, and perhaps, some form of retribution.
The End of October, Lawrence Wright
Plague: Hemorrhagic Fever
When this one first came across my desk in December, I thought, ooh, Lawrence Wright wrote a medical thriller! Several months after, I took another look and thought, holy crap, Lawrence Wright predicted the future. The details are all completely different from our current pandemic—the epidemic in this story is based on Ebola, originates in a refugee camp in Indonesia, and features belligerence from nations that are in real life cooperating effectively to slow the virus—but with a heroic doctor as a protagonist, and a May publication date, Wright’s medical thriller is truly a story for our times.