Recently I’ve been reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’d reached half way through and was wondering if perhaps I wouldn’t finish it. Although compelling in some ways, the book was beginning to irritate and frustrate me. I decided to take a break from it and began to read Susan Grossey’s book instead. I am very glad that I did because she makes writing historical fiction look easy and the reading of it a great pleasure. The Man in the Canary Waistcoat is set in 1825 in London (“this great, filthy, threatening, promising , thriving city …” – not much change there, then) and its protagonist is Samuel Plank, a magistrate’s constable. The story is about financial fraud concerning investments in the new energy of gas lighting. Sam Plank is helped out in his investigations by his engaging wife Martha and also his junior Constable Wilson. Here is a touching description of Martha.

“Despite having been married to a police officer for over twenty years, Martha retained her faith in the essential goodness of people – indeed I counted on it. On days when I had seen the very worst that someone can do to his fellow man I comforted myself that an evening by the fireside with my wife would convince me once again that although I moved in a world of shadows, I identified them as shadows only because of the lightness that Martha brought to my life.”

Grossey  is particularly good at quick, vivid descriptions of people and place. Here is the man and his waistcoat:

“His fair hair was cut fashionably, and his clothes – from the bright yellow waistcoat to the artfully arranged cravat -suggested someone with altogether too close an acquaintance with his tailor and his looking glass.”

Here a young law clerk:

“The young man who answered my knock was wearing a coat clearly inherited from someone much larger; it hung from his shoulders, and he repeatedly and pointlessly pushed back the cuffs. The ink smudges on his fingers told me that he was a junior clerk, and his relegation to door duties told me that he was not much good at it.”  

And here’s a lovely  description of a nasty bit of weather:

“If it is true that the wind drives creatures and men mad, then that first week in August would have seen Bedlam bursting at the seams. It was a hot dry wind – coming all the way from southern France, they said – and it whipped and whistled through London for five days straight. The draymen’s horses whinnied and stamped their discomfort as the foetid gusts swirled around them, while the livestock being driven through the streets bleated and bellowed their unease and took every opportunity to break away from their herders.”

The plot leads to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison and also the ‘twisting alleyways of Wapping’ where Plank was brought up as a child due to his father being a lighterman. There is enough archaic language here to make you feel you are in a different era and a useful glossary at the back to check on unfamiliar words. This is the second in the Plank novels and I’m now going to go backwards and take a look at the first one Fatal Forgery. My only slight quibble is that I wouldn’t have minded if the book was longer. Plank and his associates are  amiable company and I didn’t want the book to end. Of course, it may have been that in comparison with A Little Life (a long book) the next book I read was always going to seem short.

Here’s the link to Susan’s blog: