Is the Crimean War becoming a fashionable setting for fiction? In 2007, Katherine McMahon's The Rose of Sebastopol employed the battlefield hospitals of Balaclava as a backdrop to its romantic drama, achieving remarkable commercial success. Now Matthew Plampin's debut novel, The Street Philosopher, ventures deeper into the dark heart of the conflict. It ambitiously dramatises many of the aspects of the British Army's Crimean adventure that make it stand out as the first modern conflict: the rapid advances in weapons and technology; the steady flow of women from Britain to nurse in army, naval, and civilian hospitals; and the development of war reportage fed by public demand for eyewitness accounts of battle scenes.
War reporting is central to Plampin's unfolding plot. Thomas Kitson, the hero, arrives in Crimea in the autumn of 1854, shortly before the Battle of Alma. Kitson has abandoned a promising career in art criticism to become a war correspondent on the London Courier (a pale imitation of the Illustrated London News). Accompanying him, on the trail of Lord Raglan's ill-fated battalions, are his boss Richard Cracknell, a colourful, drink-sodden, Irish-born reporter of the old school, and Robert Styles, a sensitive young illustrator, one of the band of commissioned artists following the British Army to war, who is ill-prepared for the horrors he has to face.
Plampin's historical research is impressive, as is his command of detail. The topography of the battlefield has never been conveyed with such brutal realism, nor the rigours of a Crimean winter and their impact on the suffering troops described so tellingly. One quickly becomes caught up in a narrative that never falters, but moves forward fluently and with great style. Scattered here and there are real-life characters – Russell of The Times is glimpsed from a distance and Mary Seacole, "the Creole with the tea-cup", has a more prominent role – while Madeleine Boyce, an officer's wife, owes not a little to the vivacious Mrs Duberly and her diary (though this doesn't prevent her from coming to a sticky end).
The story is framed by a complex mechanism, moving backwards and forwards from Crimea in 1854-1855 to scenes set in Manchester, a year after the war has ended. Here we are reintroduced to Kitson, who has become a "street philosopher", a society writer reporting on the gossip of the day. But his wartime past threatens to scupper his budding relationship with the widowed daughter of a corrupt factory owner.
Disappointingly, the dénouement, centring on a painting looted from a Crimean house and shown at the Art Treasures Exhibition opened by Queen Victoria, can't bear the weight of the promise set up by the earlier, compelling sections. Perhaps in his next novel, Plampin will worry less about the twist and turns of plot, and concentrate on developing his true gift of descriptive power.