November 21, 2016

Book Review: Portraits of Pretence by Susan Grossey

Book 4 in the Sam Plank Mystery Series
Author:  Susan Grossey

Review by:  Arthur Tompkins

Constable Sam Plank is a magistrate’s constable in seventeenth century Regency London. In Portraits of Pretence (available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon) the fourth Sam Plank novel, Susan Grossey weaves an elegant and polished tale of art crime, forgery, falsified provenance, smuggling, clandestine collecting, dubious art dealers and untimely death, all against a backdrop of the evocative sights, sounds, smells and ambience of crowded and bustling Regency London.

Susan Grossey is, by day, a specialist in combating money laundering, and also the author of the (now) four Sam Plank mysteries (her Amazon author’s page can be found here). In Constable Sam Plank she has created a gentle, thoughtful, careful, indomitable and very likeable investigator of crime in the heart of England’s great capital.  In the first three Sam Plank novels, Sam tackled financial forgery and bank fraud (Fatal Forgery, set in 1824), investment fraud (The Man in the Canary Waistcoat, set in 1825) and blackmail and corruption (Worm in the Blossom, set in 1826). This time around, it is the spring of 1827 and Sam is plunged into the art market and the criminal dishonesty that swirls in and around it in post-Napoleonic England and Europe. An elderly French artist is found dead, clutching an exquisite miniature painted on ivory in his hand.  The trail leads through the vaults under the then newly-built Customs House in riverside London, visits to the blockade-men stationed in Kent, and in and out of various salubrious and not-so salubrious rooms of artists and dealers in London.

Constable Plank is ably assisted in his investigation, as he was in his earlier outings, by his indomitable and perceptive wife, Martha, his able and swift-to-learn (although not always, in matters of the heart) junior constable William, and a widening circle of memorable supporting characters – some based on historical figures, others plausible and fascinating characters circulating in the milieu of a London bursting at the seams and flexing its commercial, financial and international muscle as it enters the period when Great Britain would dominate the known world.

Ms Grossey is meticulous in her research. Her characters’ language, the streets and the buildings they inhabit, and the street-level topography of central London they walk by day and by night, are a delight. To read the story is to live in the streets of a London on the brink of global greatness, thronged by a deeply rich tapestry of life’s all-too-human variety.  The tone of the novel and the writing throughout is eminently readable and light-handed (a not inconsiderable authorial achievement), and briskly-paced.

The historical background is accurate, but not overpowering – personally I liked the passing and accurate references to the historical development of the protection and repatriation of cultural property plundered in war, and various facets of art crime itself. The many manifestations of art crime that Sam encounters are illuminating, especially for students of contemporary art crime, who will quickly realise that nothing that lies beneath the glittering surface of today’s art world is new, and that the same dark currents twisted and ran riot two centuries ago just as they do now.

Three more Sam Plank mysteries are scheduled, the next one due out (a reliable source tells me) in October 2018...

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Arthur Tompkins is a sitting District Court Judge based in Wellington and one of the founders of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust.  For 8 years now he has taught the Art in War course module for the annual Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Heritage Protection presented by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art in Amelia, Umbria, Italy. He has lectured around New Zealand and abroad on art crime, and is a regular art-crime guest on Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning show on National Radio.

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