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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The TV Book Club - The Devil's Acre

The seventh episode of the present series of the TV Book Club featured Matthew Plampin's second novel, The Devil's Acre, a novel set around the real attempt by US pistol manufacturer, Samuel Colt, to expand his gun-making business into Britain in the mid-1850s.

Britain at this time was moving towards war with Russia and, seeing this business opportunity, Colt moves into premises in Pimlico, Westminster, down by the Thames, where he plans to make his guns. Pimlico at this time was a warren of squalid slums, rank alleyways and courtyards, and fetid drains, and for its conditions and the crime that they generated the area was known as the Devil's Acre, hence the title of the book. Contributors to this episode of the TV Book Club all commented on the strength of the book's description of the London of the time.

But, as Matthew Plampin makes clear in a video interview, the book also looks at the international arms trade, in which Colt can be seen as an early participant. Colt is depicted as an bearlike, aggressive, amoral figure, driven only by the determination to win business, undeflected by the consequences of this commerce in death. Pimlico was close not only to cheap, exploitable labour but also to the seat of government at Westminster.

Into the plot is also mixed a love affair, as well as a planned political assassination by a group of Irish migrants in revenge for the British govenment's response to the potato famine.

The Devil's Acre is, as Joan Blakewell said during the programme, a tale of adventure, intrigue and murder. "It doesn't go down the path of emotional insight. That's taken for granted." Despite a brief and inevitably tedious discussion of whether it was a 'boy's' book rather than a 'girl's', there seemed to be a consensus of approval among participants in the programme, including the Bookaneers reading group from Blackpool, whether for the historical depiction or the adventure, or both.

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