Book Review: The Devil’s Acre by Matthew Plampin

I occasionally try to read out of my comfort zone. Granted, historical fiction is within my comfort zone but only when it’s a period or subject about which I know a lot or have a keen interest in. I can’t say I knew all that much about Samuel Colt when this book came into my possession, but the blurb sounded interesting, promising political intrigue in Victorian London during the period of the gang warfare in the 1850s on the eve of The Crimean War.

Samuel Colt is an American industrialist looking to manufacture and sell his brand new invention in London to the British government – the Colt Revolver. He hopes to win a contract to supply the British army as it moves to halt the session of Imperial Russia in the east. This (almost stereotypically) brash American has no patience, gets annoyed with the slow process of the government dragging their feet with war on their doorstep.

But it is not all plain sailing. Sinister forces are at work attempting to derail Colt’s efforts and opportunists are keen to try out his product in the field, threatening to set off the tinder box on London’s streets. Edward Lowry is hired at the factory, and when he soon develops a romance with one of the women on the factory floor, he gets a sniff of something not quite right down below – and I don’t mean the gunpowder. Soon enough, guns start to go missing from the warehouse and naturally, the numerous riff-raff of cheap labour hired from The Devil’s Acre are all suspects. Against the backdrop of gangland warfare and political intrigue, someone needs to stop all out war on the streets of Queen Victoria’s London.

Books like this can sometimes struggle to find the right balance between plot and character. There are periods of heavy scene-setting and description, which I liked, but also periods of character “development” that felt contrived. I refer specifically to the romance which feels more like a plot device than a genuine attachment between two people. It almost feels that it’s the catalyst behind the revelation of the major plot rather than a sub-plot there’s to break up the pace and add respite. I don’t know whether Lowry existed, or his love interest for that matter, and if they did then I feel it is an opportunity wasted.

Not the most gripping read of the year, but it did help to fill in a few gaps of a period of London’s history that maybe many people do not know about. When we think Victorian London, we think Jack The Ripper and we think of The Industrial Revolution, and of Charles Dickens, but rarely about the slums, the gangs and the dodgy deals of the growing commercialism.

The plot didn’t really come together when trying to blend the historical fiction with the thriller element and there are much better examples than this. 3/5.

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