I first became acquainted with Constable Sam Plank in the fourth novel of Susan Grossey's series, 'Portraits of Pretence', which I reviewed here for Discovering Diamonds. Pardon the pun, but he 'arrested' my attention from the beginning. That I was introduced to Sam late in the proposed seven volume series (five are available at the time of writing) is irrelevant: each story is stand alone and can be enjoyed individually.
But, as with every series, it is always best to read each volume in order and this is what I did in order to write this overview. When I had finished, I felt some sadness that I would not meet Sam again for some time and this is a sure sign of an extremely good series.
So let us go back to the beginning. We are in Regency London in the 1820s. In terms of law enforcement it is a time just after the Bow street Runners and just before an organised Metropolitan Police Force. Constable Plank serves magistrates from a base: Great Marlborough Street in his case. The constables served or carried out warrants issued by the magistrates and often carried out investigations on the magistrate's behalf, for there were no detectives. They arrested men and women who they knew might well hang for their crimes if found guilty. Alongside him, most of the time, is Constable William Wilson, young, inexperienced and eager.
Sam is married to Martha and has been for close on twenty years. Despite their best efforts, they are childless and have accepted that as their lot in life. They are an ideal couple, Sam and Martha. Soul Mates. They have few secrets and share everything. Although uneducated when they met, Sam has taught Martha to read and write and she is his sounding board whenever he has a problem concerning his work, for she is actually very intelligent and can present things to him 'from a woman's viewpoint'.
Many other characters flit in and out of Sam's world, some permanent, some temporary. Most notable of the former is John Conant, a magistrate whom Sam principally serves, sometimes to the annoyance of other magistrates. But, having similar views on justice, they get along very well.
These, then, are the main characters. Beautifully drawn, human with foibles, serious thinkers and more concerned with the Spirit of the Law than the Letter of the Law. Sensible and forward thinking, in other words. But Ms Grossey takes them forward in their lives, most noticeably Constable Wilson. In Fatal Forgery, their first outing, William is barely in it but when he is he is raw and perhaps a little impetuous. Little hints from Sam – like ensuring that he always uses his notebook – let us know that Sam is going to take him under his wing. He teaches him how to think things through based on what he has noted down. By Worm in the Blossom, the third in the series, William is a much more rounded character and come Faith, Hope and Trickery (Book 5) he is considering getting married to a character who makes her appearance in the series. And that is another of the wonderful things that the author does: she introduces characters and develops many of them more and more over the ensuing stories.
Yet there is much more than just some wonderful characters to this series. Although murders take place at some point in the story, they are not always the start point. The author has some experience in financial crime – on the right side of the law, I hasten to add – and this is evident in her plot lines: forgery, blackmail and investment scams. At the time, many of these could be punishable by death or, at best, deportation. Self murder, or suicide, was also classed as a crime and could bring shame on members of the family.
The language of the times is authentic (there is a glossary at the end of each book defining some of the words and phrases used) without ever being stereotypical. Another blessing is that no one story is all about the 'low life' of the city – although, obviously, they appear – but mostly about the rich and the ordinary. The gullible and the vulnerable.
The stories are not continuous in the sense that, having concluded one case, Sam and William move straight onto the next one: there is a year or even two between adverntures which may – or may not – allow scope for even more of the seven planned books. Personally, I hope so. And neither are the cases solved overnight – they can take weeks and sometimes months to crack.
However, there is one thing I haven't mentioned. And that is atmosphere. Whether in an alehouse, Newgate Prison, Bartholomew's Fair or even Bedlam and, whatever the season, the atmosphere is there to feel, smell and almost taste.
I lied. There were two things I hadn't mentioned and the other is the setting: London. As a Londoner myself, I worked in what we now call the West End for quite a few years. I worked in Berners Street (mentioned in Fatal Forgery) which is just on the other side of Oxford Street to Great Marlborough Street where Sam's working base is. Ms Grossey takes us on plenty of walking tours in that area and those brought many memories flooding back for me. You see, shops and houses change, but streets don't. I'm sure the architecture today would baffle Sam Plank and William Wilson if they could revisit, but they would still be able to find their way around. And the beauty of this setting is that it is in neither the high class areas around Park Lane and Mayfair nor the dingy, overcrowded areas of, say, Whitechapel or Stepney. It is somewhere in between them, both geographically and in terms of 'class' – and that is in itself somewhat unusual in novels of this time period or a little later which tend to concentrate on one or the other.
The author knows her subject: descriptions of how the law worked then feels right and so I have no reason to question their authenticity.
I don't think that there have been many 'detective' novels written that did not require a chance meeting, an overheard remark or a fortunate coincidence and this is the case here, but never so outrageous that they stretch the reader's belief. All loose ends are very neatly tied up at the end of each instalment.
Few fictional characters have grabbed me as Sam and Martha have; this really is a series that I can heartily recommend.
© Richard Tearle
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