Title: The Devil’s Acre
Author: Matthew Plampin
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date: 24th June 2010
Genre: Historical Fiction
This is the first time I have ever read historical fiction, and unfortunate to say, for my first time…it was disappointing.
I picked up the novel in my local book shop as it promised an intriguing plot, political scheming, a scandalous affair, gangs, theft, and murder. What I got was a mediocre mess of a book.
The Devil’s Acre is set in Victorian London, based on the gun factory of Colonel Samuel Colt. I am unfamiliar with this piece of history, but looking at the notes in the back, Matthew Plampin seems to have done his research and I give him credit for that.
We start the book by meeting Edward Lowry, who has recently been hired by Col Colt as his personal secretary. Col Colt has opened his gun factory in London and sets about trying to do business with the London government to supply his revolvers to the British army. Along the way, Edward meets Caroline Knox; a factory worker who Edward is smitten with but unfortunately she is below his social class. Things get difficult for Caroline when she gets ensnared to help her brother-in-law, Martin Rea – factory worker and Irish immigrant – steal guns for his gang of Irish friends known as the Molly Maguires. The Molly Maguires are hell bent on acquiring guns so they can murder British politician, Lord John, who they blame for the terrible famine in Ireland.
Coupled with the political scheming of Col Colt and the British politicians, you would think it would lead to an engaging and interesting read. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
I found this book very difficult to get into, and about a third of the way through I was just reading the book to finish it rather than any actual interest or enjoyment of the book. Part of the reason for this is because we’re always chopping and changing what character we’re with. In one chapter we’re with Edward, in the next we’re with Col Colt, then we’re with Caroline Knox, then onto Martin Rea, and finally we’re back again with Edward Lowry starting the rotating cycle all over again.
The continuous changing between characters was somewhat jarring. It also made it very difficult to form any kind of bond with the characters, as we never stuck long enough with them to see them develop. In fact, overall character development was severely lacking in this book. There were only two characters who showed any kind of development, Edward Lowry (who was a wet blanket and I didn’t care for) and Martin Rea (the most, and only, interesting character in the book).
Apart from Martin Rea and Edward Lowry, all of the characters were two dimensional reactionists. One of the reasons for this is a good number of characters are historical figures. You’re limited to how much you actually know about these people, and with the little you do know it can be hard to build some kind of picture to how they’re personality would be. Which means you will end up tweaking certain facts and adding flourishes to your characters to fill them out, but, you’re restricted to how much you can do this before being accused of being historically inaccurate.
Though I acknowledge it can be difficult to build characters based on historical figures, I also noticed the original characters of this book were somewhat lacking as well. I just didn’t care for them. They made little or no impression on me, and I felt they were nothing more than a part of the scenery.
Another problem with the constant changing between characters meant we were constantly changing between plot points as well. First we’re reading about Edward adjusting to his new job, then we’re reading about Col Colt trying to sell his guns, then about how Caroline is forced to help the Molly Maguires acquire guns, and then were reading about the Molly Maguires plotting to kill Lord John before going back to Edward. It felt like we had four stories in one book, instead of weaving the plot points together and making one interesting story.
I also found the major plot points to be underdeveloped and poorly executed.
The love affair between Edward and Caroline was meant to be a scandalous affair; after all, they were from different classes and worked in the same establishment. The foundations were set with the growing attraction between Edward and Caroline and the gossips starting to whisper about the two liking one another. Then the plot point was somewhat dropped once Caroline got involved with the Molly Maguires and was ordered to stay away from Edward as it could jeopardise their plans. From then on, all we got was Edward moping about why Caroline wasn’t talking to him, and Caroline feeling bad at having to ignore Edward. In the last third of the book we finally had Edward and Caroline get together when she needed his help, but it was all kept secret as Edward hid Caroline in his place of residence until things came to an end and Caroline died.
There was no romantic or sexual tension between the two which built up and had you routing for them as a couple. And when they did finally get together as a couple, it was kept behind closed doors and none of the other characters knew about it, which meant there were no problems or dramas associated with such a relationship, and I personally would have found that interesting to read about. I just didn’t care about this couple.
The Molly Maguires attempted to obtain revolvers by getting Caroline to sneak out gun parts and eventually whole guns. When this failed, the Molly Maguries decided to storm the factory and take the pistols by force. Their attempts to do this were so amateurish and stupid I found it laughable. Yet it was also rather disappointing, because the gang was supposed to be intimidating and dangerous, but they just came across as foolish thugs.
On the whole, the major plot points were poorly developed, boring, and underwhelming. Even the ending was anticlimactic. I was hoping for a big showdown, as the Molly Maguires went to kill Lord John and everyone tried to stop them. All that happened at the end, was everyone blundered along until they were caught by the factory warden, who had known what was going on the entire time. A few people died, but as I have said before in this review, I didn’t really care, I was just glad to be at the end of the book.
I may make it sound like this book was a real chore to read, and yes it really was tedious as I pushed myself to finish it. But at least I didn’t have to contend with bad grammar as well.
Having read so many books with poor grammar recently, it was a blessing to read something where the author at least had a basic understanding of grammar. I did find the word ‘that’ overused a little bit, but I think it is more me nit-picking than a real fault with the book.
However, there was one thing which really annoyed me. Thankfully it only happened two or three times in the book, yet when they did happen, they were huge slap in the face. I refer to writing accents in dialogue.
Now I know you may want to inject some personality in your characters by writing their accent into the dialogue, yet in doing this, it can make your work very unreadable. One way of doing this is to replace certain words with alternative words which are popular in certain dialects. For example: if your character is French, you may have them say ‘oui’ instead of ‘yes’. Another way to write accents is to omit certain letters with apostrophes in certain words, such as words beginning with H or ending in i-n-g – such as ‘ere for here; or tryin’ for trying.
However, you need to be careful not to over this; moderation is the key. One popular way to write in an accent is to mention he/she spoke with a heavy or prominent accent instead of writing it in the dialogue. In a fair few cases this is the best option. Yet on a few occasions, Matthew Plampin chose to write in a cockney accent by completely misspelling words. A technique you have to be careful with, as it can go completely wrong, and did go completely wrong for Matthew Plampin.
I’ll show you. I came across these two words, haggravatin’ and sitiwation. Try saying these words out loud…I bet they feel like they don’t fit right in your mouth. It turns out haggravatin’ is aggravating, and sitiwation is situation. It took a fair few minutes for me to figure it out. This really annoyed me, not only was it very difficult to read, but being an East Londoner (home of the cockney) it infuriated me to believe this is how Matthew Plampin pictures us speaking!
Despite all the above, and generally not being happy with this book, I did enjoy reading about Victorian London. The description of places and London life felt very authentic and it is what I liked the most about this book.
All in all, this book really wasn’t worth the effort it took to read it. The few good points really didn’t negate the smothering boredom one felt when reading this story.
- Poorly developed plot points.
- Ended on a huge anti-climax
- Uninteresting characters.
- Constantly changing from character/plot point to character/plot point
- Major blunder in writing accents into dialogue
- Grammar is consistently good throughout (apart from one point regarding accents)
- Research done into the subject matter.
- Depicts London in Victorian times well.