my guest for Tuesday Talk - Susan Grossey, and her protagonist, Constable Sam Plank
Authors who set their books in the past tend to become rather protective of “their” era, and I am no exception. I write historical financial crime novels set in London in the 1820s, and when someone (very generously) compares them, for instance, to the Mr Whicher books or the Sherlock Holmes stories, I am very quick to point out that they are Victorian while mine are late Regency. And when I am researching a new book, I am very strict with myself so as to avoid cross-contamination: apart from my research, I do not allow myself to read or watch anything set within “a century of Sam” (the hero of my books is Constable Sam Plank).
The Sam Plank novels are all about financial crime: “Fatal Forgery” dealt with bank fraud, while “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” tackled investment scams. And for the third, “Worm in the Blossom”, I decided to move on to blackmail. As for what would precipitate the blackmail, I settled on child prostitution. But when the book was published, it was suggested that it might be out of time – that people in 1826 did not think of child prostitution in the way we do, and would not have been outraged by it. To be completely honest, I was a little worried about this myself when I started; after all, in 1826 the age of consent was only twelve. But the more I read about the subject, the more convinced I became that it was entirely possible – probable, even – that my hero would not have been content to see adult men procuring young girls for sex. Granted, having sex with a thirteen year old girl was not illegal in 1826, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was considered shameful – and men who are ashamed of what they do are perfect targets for blackmail, as they become in “Worm in the Blossom”.
The concept of “childhood” underwent enormous change in the nineteenth century. The London Orphan Asylum – whose institutional aims included the rescue of destitute orphans “from the walks of vice and profligacy” – was opened in 1814 in east London. And indeed throughout the century, philanthropists and churches worked to protect children from moral danger. Sam Plank, introduced to the world of charitable works by a Quaker banker friend, would have been well aware of these efforts, and, having seen as a constable the terrible conditions in which abandoned children lived, would certainly have supported and promoted them. Education was seen as the way forward: London’s first official infant school was opened in Spitalfields in 1820, while the Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1825 restricted the hours that could be worked by children under the age of sixteen so that they could be schooled – as well as demonstrating that the definition of “child” was not linked in the public mind to that low age of consent. Modern and compassionate people in other countries were similarly active; the Ontario Office of the Children’s Lawyer – still active today – was set up in 1820.
In parallel, public acceptance of prostitution – for years seen as a necessary service to satisfy male appetites – was shrinking rapidly. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 made it an offence for a “common prostitute” to “wander in the public street or public highways, or any place of public resort, and behave in a riotous or indecent manner”. And in a campaign now known as “the Ordeal of St Sepulchre’s”, the residents of one lower middle-class London parish in the 1820s mobilised – successfully – against the brothels in their community.
Against this factual background, I placed my characters. Constable Sam Plank is an experienced magistrates’ constable, a quarter-century of service under his belt. He sees the worst in society every day, and longs to improve things – particularly for the most vulnerable. His wife Martha has a fondness for children, having none of her own, and when Sam brings home a terrified young prostitute, Martha sees a child and not a woman. Sam’s boss, the magistrate John Conant, is known for his forward-thinking, liberal and campaigning ideas, as are Sam’s banker friend and his charitable Quaker associates. When they see men with an appetite for young girls, they are troubled not by the legality of the situation – no law is being broken, as long as the girls are operating from brothels and not walking the streets – but by its shame. By the 1820s, the thinking classes are already of the opinion that childhood goes beyond twelve, and they are starting to agitate for changes in the legislation. The fact that it takes decades for this to happen is no surprise; after all, the first “freedom suit”, challenging the legality of slavery, took place in Scotland in 1755 – a full fifty-two years before the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed in 1807. The criminal masterminds in “Worm in the Blossom” are able to exploit this change in taste: they make money from selling the girls, and then they make money by blackmailing the men who buy them.
The huge changes of the Regency period were what drew me to it in the first place – post-Austen, pre-Dickens, it is a remarkably untouched era for detective fiction. Next on my agenda is the altering attitude to art fraud; at a time when young ladies of accomplishment spent their days in galleries copying great works of art, just what was forgery? Sam is going to find out…
To follow Susan’s writing blog – where she confesses all as she works her way through the Sam Plank series – follow this link:
The published Sam Plank novels – “Fatal Forgery”, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” (longlisted for the HNS Indie Award 2016) and “Worm in the Blossom” – are available in paperback and numerous e-formats; for purchase information, follow this link:
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