The Devil's Acre is more than a simple historical thriller. Plampin takes his time in setting up the plot, developing the characters and embedding them firmly in their physical and historical world. As a result the book is as gripping as a thriller, but is a far more substantial read.
The London of The Devil's Acre is panoramic in scope, diving from the heights of government in Whitehall to the depths of the slums of the eponymous Acre; the sights, sounds and smells of the Victorian city are brought vividly to life. Yet history doesn't just provide a picturesque backdrop to the novel; it forms an integral part of the plot. The lead-up to the Crimean War, the famine in Ireland and a cholera epidemic, as well as historical figures like Dickens, Kossuth and Palmerston, have a direct impact on the lives of the main characters.
The novel opens with an epigraph from George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, a play about an arms manufacturer and his daughter, a Salvation Army officer. Throughout the novel Samuel Colt refers to his weapons as 'peacemakers', although Plampin makes it clear that violence is inevitably linked to the gun factory and its employees. Colt's assertion about guns as peacemakers is never properly tested by other characters, and he sometimes comes across as simply uninterested in the moral questions surrounding his work – in contrast to Undershaft in Major Barbara, who has a more complex moral position. For Colt, the morality of selling guns is simply irrelevant: the only measure of an action's consequences is whether or not it is good for business. Colt's robust views on slavery – wrong because it is uneconomical – make for a brilliantly funny scene with Lord Palmerston. Edward's moral evolution is well handled, allowing him a degree of contradictory thinking about his work. Likewise, Martin Rea's tragic position – torn between love of his family and loyalty to the Irish cause – is very moving, and powefully portrayed.
Often authors successfully create a little world for their novels, a bubble of life. Plampin's greatest success is the way his novel integrates into the wider historical world in which it is set. Historical figures enter the narrative not simply as props, but as people with their own lives going on beyond the frame of the novel, drawn in and out of its scope as their desires and interests dictate. The effect is to create a sense of the various overlapping layers of Victorian London, then the largest city in the world, through which Plampin's diverse range of characters roam in their efforts to realise their goals.
The Devil's Acre featured on Channel 4's TV Book Club on 8th August 2010.
Dame Joan Bakewell called it "a rip-roaring yarn" and "a really terrific story" and members of a Blackpool book club rated it as well: "it's engaging, well written... it almost felt like a classic" said one reader, while another felt "transported back to Victorian England".