I’m delighted to welcome Susan Grossey to the blog. She is the author of a crime series set in Regency London, figuring Constable Sam Plank’s investigation into financial fraud. Susan is herself an expert in anti-money laundering. Her most recent book, the fourth in the Sam Plank series is Portraits of Pretence. The books are beautifully researched and have wonderful descriptions of Regency London. If you read them you will also discover what it is to be jug-bitten!
Q. Why the Regency period? Can you remember what it was that made you first decide to set your books then?
A. The first Sam Plank book, “Fatal Forgery”, came about almost by accident. My day job is the prevention of financial crime, and to this end I was reading about bank crime, which of course has existed since banks began. And I came across the story of Henry Fauntleroy, a banker who stole from his own bank in the 1820s and was caught in 1824. He immediately admitted his guilt, even though this meant a fast-track to the scaffold, and I wondered why he would do that. A mere four years later, “Fatal Forgery” was finished! Along the way I had realised that the Regency period was very under-examined in every writing genre except romance. There are plenty of books set in the Georgian period, and more Victorian detectives than you can shake a stick at, but Regency? Not much at all. And from a London policing perspective this was a fascinating era – post-Bow Street Runners, pre-Metropolitan Police, with very little structure to the service beyond the savvy of the individual constables.
Q. Your books have a real charm to them that I think comes from the tenderness of the relationship between Sam and his wife Martha and Sam’s assistant Wilson. Sam is a protagonist enviably free of dysfunction and that’s very refreshing these days. In some ways it reminds me of the dynamic between Morse, Lewis and Lewis’s wife although in that case the older man is single. Could you tell me a little about the decision making process around your development and characterization of Sam, Martha and Wilson?
A. Sam is an amalgamation of several constables whose actual words I was able to read in the invaluable online transcripts of Old Bailey cases – in fact, the name Sam Plank came from one of those! And I liked the idea of a man who has been around a bit – Sam escaped a poor upbringing, was a barber for a while and then fell into law enforcement – but remains essentially decent. As you say, he is not dysfunctional – I was a bit tired of “the copper more damaged than the criminals” – but I have tried to show that he has human flaws (he’s rather vain). As the books are narrated by Sam, I needed to have discussions in them, rather than just interior thoughts (plus I enjoy writing dialogue), and I liked the idea of a man being brave on the outside only because he has support at home. At the same time, I have to remind myself constantly not to make Martha modern: she is no feminist, simply a woman who adores her husband and has a good brain. And as Sam is reaching the end of his career – he’s a good age, for a working man of his era – I wanted to give him a chance to pass on his knowledge, and sometimes to explain to the reader why he was doing certain things, and Wilson is the mechanism for that. But, as characters will, Wilson is starting to demand more attention.
Q. I was fascinated by the material in the book about miniatures, especially about the fact they were painted on ivory. Could you tell me a little about your research?
A. Some time ago I visited the Wallace Collection in London, a wonderful private collection open to the public, and they have a gorgeous display of miniatures. I stored the thought away… I have known for some time that there will be seven Sam Plank books and I have plotted the central crime for each, so I already knew that “Plank 4” – “Portraits of Pretence” – would be about art fraud of some kind. And when I thought more carefully, I realized that I wanted portable art – miniatures were perfect. So back I went to the Wallace, to look more closely, and then I started reading all the contemporary sale catalogues I could find for descriptions of miniatures and their frames. I am lucky enough to be a member of the University Library in Cambridge, and in their rare books collection they have several “how to” guides from the Regency era, written for amateur artists. Every accomplished young lady wanted to be able to paint miniatures, and careful instructions are given on how to select and prepare materials, and how to paint the picture.
Q. My feeling is you have certainly walked the walk when it comes to describing Constable Plank’s perambulations around Regency London. Could you tell me a little about how you researched that? Were crumbling maps involved! In particular I loved the descriptions of Custom House.
A. My husband calls this research “walking the Plank”! It’s actually quite simple: I walk around London. Although the street-level architecture and detail is all very modern, just raise your eyes and from the first floor upwards, most of it is original. I did consult a few crumbling maps – the University Library again – but the best of all is Greenwood’s 1827 map of London, thoughtfully put online by someone at Bath University. It’s particularly useful for checking street names; for instance, Sam lives in Norton Street, near Regent’s Park, but you won’t find that name today as it’s now Bolsover Street.
Q. Did you always want to be a writer or did you start writing as an adult?
A. Always, always, always. I am an only child and spent a huge amount of time reading and writing. My first success was a short story entitled “Bonkers the Witch”, for which I won a rosette from my headmistress when I was six.
Q. Influences as a writer and crime writer.
A. My absolute hero is CJ Sansom – if I can evoke an era a tenth as well as he can, I’ll be happy. I find that now that I am a writer myself, I am much more critical when I read: I will make notes along the lines of “make sure it’s always clear who’s speaking” and “don’t indulge yourself in reams of description”. I’m much less tolerant of poorly edited books, as I think it should be done properly – it’s rude to expect a reader to put up with your laziness.
Q. I see that you have three more to come in the series. Will that then definitely be the end? Or will you continue with Wilson?
A. I’m already a bit sad at the thought of being without Sam, so the smart money – i.e. my husband’s – is on Sam sticking around in a consultative capacity!
Q. Do you have all the others in the series planned out or are you operating on a one by one basis?
A. They are all planned. There’s a simple pattern to them, in that they take place in consecutive years: “Portraits of Pretence” is in 1827, so “Plank 5” will be 1828. The unifying feature of the series – apart from Sam himself – is financial crime, so we’ve had bank fraud, investment fraud, bribery, and art fraud. “Plank 5” will be about… oh no, I can’t reveal that too soon!
Q. Could you give a brief account of your path to publishing. Have you done courses, do you belong to writing groups etc?
A. Once I had the first (extremely rough) draft of “A Fraudster and a Gentleman” – the ghastly original title of “Fatal Forgery”, written from the point of view of the banker Fauntleroy – I hit a road-block: I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t see how to put it right. I didn’t like the idea of a writing group, because I wanted an expert to help – not other, albeit enthusiastic, amateurs. And then I read about Gold Dust, a writers’ mentoring scheme set up by a group of proper, professional, published authors. For about a thousand pounds, they offered a year of monthly meetings with an author, at which you would discuss your latest chapter – which meant writing the blasted thing. I asked for, and was given, Jill Dawson as my author: she’s local to me, and knows about writing historical fiction. And every month I had to take something to show her. What was most valuable – above and beyond the excellent writing and plotting advice she gave me – was her belief that, one day, this would be a book worthy of publication.
At the end of that year I had “Fatal Forgery” ready to go. I submitted it to five agents and four publishers, and they all turned it down “because no-one is interested in financial crime”. By then I had fallen in love with Sam, and I decided to rewrite the whole thing from his point of view. Once that was done, I couldn’t face the agent/publisher merry-go-round again, and self-publishing had come on in leaps and bounds, and I decided to go it alone.
Q. What advice would you give to a young writer starting out now?
A. Set a timetable and deadlines, and stick to them. If you wait for the muse to appear, for the “writing mood” to descend, you’ll never do anything. I write a book a year and in the first half of the year, I write a thousand words a week – perfectly manageable. In the second half of the year, I double that, and in the final month, I really go for it. Even if it’s rubbish, you can edit rubbish – but if you’ve written nothing because that sock drawer really, really, really needed tidying, you have nothing to edit.
Q. I see that you are an expert on anti-money laundering. How does your experience in that field filter through into your novel writing?
A. I am unashamedly fascinated by financial crime – why people do it, and why it keeps working. That’s what made me want to explore Regency financial crime, as it’s simply history repeating itself. In “Fatal Forgery”, Fauntleroy is able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – share certificates – to bamboozle his customers and steal from them. Recently, bankers were able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – subprime mortgages – to bamboozle their customers and steal from them. Now we have Bitcoin, mobile payments, crowdfunding – on it goes. The same is true for the crimes in the other Sam Plank books – we still have investment fraud, bribery, art crime. We greedy and gullible humans never learn our lesson!
Q. I love the design of the covers. They are simple but very striking. Could you tell me a little about your design choices?
A. Aren’t they gorgeous? I take absolutely no credit for them: they are the work of Andrew and Rebecca at the company Design for Writers. It was the one area where I decided to treat myself to real talent, as I have the artistic capabilities of a roll-top desk – left to my own devices, I would have created a cover out of glitter and macaroni. For “Fatal Forgery” they asked me to fill out a long questionnaire about the book and its subject, the sorts of covers I liked and disliked, any fonts I admired, the colours I preferred and so on. At the end of that, they came up with the cover that you see now – complete with custom-designed “Plank font”. All I had to ask them to do was adjust the whiskers; the original gentleman they used had a moustache, but Sam has only side-whiskers, so they redrew them. The fine fellow you see is how Sam imagines himself – I fear the real Sam is a little less elegant. From then on, we have used that cover as the model for the other books, with the addition of the strapline across the top, indicating that the book is “A Sam Plank Mystery”.
Q. What will you write after the Sam Plank series? Will you stay in the Regency period or spread your wings?
A. I probably should move on, but, as I say, I like writing in a less popular era, and now I know so much about it, I’d hate to leave. Perhaps I could do the diary of a magistrate, or reminiscences of a prison keeper…
Q. I love the glossary at the back: puff guts, rum cull, square toes, jug-bitten. Is it fun discovering and using these words?
A. So much fun! There are several Regency lexicons and slang dictionaries that I consult. My own personal favourites are the ones for throwing up (a pretty common occurrence in Regency times, when almost everything you ate or drank was contaminated with something), such as “flashing the hash” and “casting up your account”. And if flashing the hash doesn’t purge you sufficiently, you might well end up “wearing a wooden surcoat”… lying in your coffin.
Thank you so much Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope your husband is forced to ‘walk the plank’ for many years to come! Lots of good luck with Portraits of Pretence and the rest of the series.
You will find all the links to Susan’s books in the purchase section of her blog here:
And Sam even has his own twitter account: @ConstablePlank