Book review: Matthew Plampin – The Devil’s Acre

It’s getting colder by the day here in The Netherlands and lately all I have been wanting to do is to curl up with a cuppa and a good book. The book I just finished reading is Matthew Plampin’s The Devil’s Acre. Set in Victorian London and based on historical fact but with plenty of fictive events and characters in the mix, it is an interesting read if you want to get a feel for what Victorian London was like.

The book entails the endeavors of Colonel Samuel Colt: entrepreneur, gun maker and American. He has decided to set up a factory in England to sell his famous Colt revolving pistols in Europe. By setting up this factory he not only starts an adventure of his own, but also provides several others with new opportunities, be it good or bad. There is Mr. Lowry, the ambitious secretary. Ms. Caroline Knox, factory worker and Mr. Lowry’s love interest has the unfortunate link of her sister having married an Irish man and living in Devil’s Acre (a slum near Westminster Abbey in Victorian Age London). Last but not least, there are the Molly Maguires: a group of Irishmen from Devil’s Acre (including Caroline’s brother-in-law) who will do anything in their power to avenge the wrongdoings of the English on Ireland during the Famine.

All four perspectives are incorporated in the book, giving insights into four important layers of Victorian London society. We follow Samuel Colt as he tries to sell his wares to corrupt politicians in high society (and ends up being a bit of the same himself). Mr. Lowry lives in modest accommodations and is very much trying to carve out a life for himself. When he then falls in love with Ms. Knox, the life he had envisioned for himself alters in more way then one. The Mollies have to change their plans for assassinating the politician they hold responsible for the despair in Ireland, leading them to blackmail Ms. Knox into doing something she’d never thought she would.

The story plays out quite nicely, but it is a bit slow to start. We are first introduced to all four viewpoints and thus it takes a while to get to know the characters. The plot then keeps shifting from narrator to narrator, which doesn’t make the story always as accessible. Sometimes the storyline gets cut off, just when you thought things were getting interesting. However, getting these different viewpoints also helps develop the story in an intriguing way. Since you never fully get to know one person, the plot and the way the story ends are partly kept a surprise right until the very end.

What I like about this story is that it is based on actual historical facts. Samuel Colt DID have a factory in London and he did try to sell his wares to the English government. On top of that, part of the story is set against the backdrop of the Crimean War, which also really happened at that time. Devil’s Acre also really existed and was mainly occupied by Irishmen who had fled Ireland after the Great Famine. Despite these facts, all other events are fictional and it is very hard to tell what is real and what isn’t.

The author definitely did his research and tried to be as historically correct as possible. This does sometimes lead to very lengthy descriptions of people, situations and surroundings, but all that does add to the atmosphere: for the 400 odd pages this book contains, you really are in Victorian London. You can almost taste the food, smell the horse dung on the streets and see the gun factory standing alongside the River Thames.

The downside to the book is that the storyline is not as intricate as could be. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit simple and part of it predictable. Mr. Lowry’s infatuation with Ms. Knox became a bit tedious after a while, as did Samuel Colt’s aloofness at all things English. It seemed to me as if the book focused on the least interesting aspects of the story and left the exciting bits to play minor parts in the storyline. I also read Plampin’s first novel, The Street Philosopher and loved that. There you really got to know the characters, rather than the city and places they occupied. That missing link with the characters is what makes me rate Devil’s Acre as an enjoyable historical novel, but not something I think everyone should pick up.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? Also: if you have any recommendations for me regarding books I should read: let me know in a comment below. I have just started Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but suggestions for after that one are very welcome.

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