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Books: Curl up with this Cambridge-set thriller series

Marking the launch of her new period crime series - the Cambridge-set Gregory Hardiman Mysteries - author Susan Grossey tells Velvet why the “seamier side” of University life in the late Regency proved an irresistible subject

Susan Grossey's new period mystery series is set in Cambridge
Susan Grossey's new period mystery series is set in Cambridge

There are not many people who will cheerfully admit to making a living from crime, but I am one of them. After 25 years as an anti-money laundering consultant – advising banks, law firms and casinos on how to spot criminal money – I found myself obsessed with financial crime. And when I decided to write a novel, my subject was clear: dodgy finance.

I had come across the story of a London banker who, in 1824, stole all the money from his family’s bank and then – inexplicably – confessed straight away. And this at a time when financial crime carried the death penalty.

My first novel, Fatal Forgery, is loosely based on this man and explores my favourite aspects of financial crime: why people do it, and why money (or what it represents) matters so much to them. I told the story from the point of view of the man who arrests the banker – a magistrates’ constable called Sam Plank – and I then committed the terrible sin of falling in love with my own character.

I just couldn’t imagine life without Sam and so I decided to turn that one book into a series: The Sam Plank Mysteries. Each of the seven books takes place in a year in the 1820s, and the story comes to a natural end in 1829, when the Metropolitan Police is created and Sam’s job disappears.

After seven books, however, I was addicted both to writing a series of novels, and to the 1820s. It’s a much-neglected decade, often called the late Regency. Plenty of books are set in the Regency proper – the most famous being by Jane Austen – and many novelists have created Victorian criminals and detectives.

But given my interests, the 1820s are irresistible: professional policing is being introduced, finance is in turmoil (people were wrestling with the concepts of paper money and share certificates, after centuries of metal coinage), and the justice system is finally becoming a little fairer (with the introduction of the novel concept of a defence in court). And as someone who has lived in Cambridge for more than three decades, why not set a new series here?

As great good fortune would have it, all my interests collided again. In 1825, tired of dissolute undergraduates, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford persuaded Parliament to pass the Universities Act 1825. Under this legislation, the two universities were permitted to appoint constables to keep the scholars in check. And so here was my ready-made narrator for a new series: a university constable. But being a constable was only a part-time job – their main responsibility was to winkle students out of hostelries in the evenings and make sure they were back in college for the night – and so my man needed another occupation.

By making Gregory Hardiman an ostler (the person who looks after the horses at a coaching inn), I gave him an excuse to move around the town, and also the opportunity to hear the gossip brought from London (and Lynn and Ipswich and Birmingham and other places) by the coach drivers.

Foolishly I thought that as I lived in Cambridge and knew a bit about the university, writing the first Gregory Hardiman Mystery would be a doddle. How wrong I was. Cambridge in the 1820s is rather more provincial than the great metropolis of London, and it is also a very male place – at that time, only the heads of the 17 colleges were permitted to marry.

If any other member of the university married, he had to resign. So Cambridge’s elite social circle consisted of 17 couples at the most – and the other men in the university lived a rather circumscribed life. I am struggling to get enough women into my stories – but I do like a challenge.

Ostler is the first in a planned series of five Gregory Hardiman Mysteries. In it you will meet Gregory and learn a little of his rather colourful background – he is a very well-travelled man, and a war veteran damaged inside and out by his experiences.

I have decided on the central crime for each of the other four books, which will take place in consecutive years in the 1820s and – I hope – will appear at the rate of one a year. And I have wisely created my own college, so that no-one can take offence when its members misbehave. So if you’re curious about the seamier side of Cambridge history, I hope you will let Gregory be your guide.

The Cambridge Hardiman Mysteries: Ostler
The Cambridge Hardiman Mysteries: Ostler

Gregory Hardiman is enjoying the quiet life of an ostler at a Cambridge coaching inn, but when the inn’s cook is found drowned in the river, and fine wines and precious artworks begin to disappear from the fictional St Clement’s College, he finds himself caught up in the murky world of college life in the town. Available at amazon.co.uk, Ostler is out now in paperback and ebook

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