London, 1727 – and Tom Hawkins is about to fall from his heaven of card games, brothels and coffee-houses into the hell of a debtors’ prison.
The Marshalsea is a savage world of its own, with simple rules: those with family or friends who can lend them a little money may survive in relative comfort. Those with none will starve in squalor and disease. And those who try to escape will suffer a gruesome fate at the hands of the gaol’s ruthless governor and his cronies.
The trouble is, Tom Hawkins has never been good at following rules – even simple ones. And the recent grisly murder of a debtor, Captain Roberts, has brought further terror to the gaol. While the Captain’s beautiful widow cries for justice, the finger of suspicion points only one way: to the sly, enigmatic figure of Samuel Fleet.
Some call Fleet a devil, a man to avoid at all costs. But Tom Hawkins is sharing his cell. Soon, Tom’s choice is clear: get to the truth of the murder – or be the next to die.
Antonia Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea was one of the books I’ve been looking forward to reading ever since it was announced. Set in the early eighteenth century featuring a murder mystery set in one of the most hellish places in London, it sounded like it would hit all my reading buttons. But the book didn’t just meet my hopes and expectations, it exceeded it; within the pages of this first novel I found a compelling narrative telling the story of vibrant and engaging characters, written in a smooth and self-assured style that lends its narrator a strong voice and draws the reader into Georgian London in all its stinking squalor and splendour.
Much of the narrative is set within the confines of the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison. And it’s a curious place with on the Common Side hundreds of people living in what can only be described as hell on earth, while two steps away on the Master’s Side people live in relative discomfort, but not in the dire circumstances found on the other side of the Wall. In fact, there were even people living in the Marshalsea, often former debtors, who lived there by choice and plied their trade there in a very profitable manner. Yet all live in fear of the Governor and the threat of being sent to the Common Side and almost certain death. Hodgson paints the Marshalsea for her reader in vivid detail, providing us with input for all senses and providing her tale with a strong sense of place.
Into this putrid stew of humanity falls our protagonist, Tom Hawkins. A feckless, charming rogue, Tom is hock-deep into depth and even a last-ditch effort to gamble his way out of it by winning large at cards is foiled when he gets robbed on his way home. So he finds himself in the Marshalsea and he has to discover what he is really made off when he is charged with finding the murderer of Captain Roberts. Tom is a sympathetic character. While he’s clearly landed himself in a heap of trouble through his aimless existence and his rebellion against his father’s wishes for his future, he has a lot of redeemable qualities, one of which is his inability to stand by and watch events unfold and the other is his inherent honourableness, something he initially doesn’t even believe he has. It’s impossible to enter the Marshalsea and leave unchanged, but whether for the better or worse is always in question. Tom’s growth during the book ensures that if he gets out of debt, he’s changed for the better and Hodgson manages this change without it seeming forced. But first he needs to get out of debtor’s prison, for which he’ll need to solve the Captain’s murder.
The mystery in the book is a fascinating one, as it is many-faceted and the suspects are many, most of them equally likely. Hodgson lays down some very interesting false trails for Tom and the reader to follow and she had me fooled several times. Of course Tom doesn’t solve the mystery on his own, he’s aided by several people and obstructed by several too. Chief among his allies is Samuel Fleet, the titular devil of the Marshalsea. Fleet is generally disliked and distrusted by the inhabitants of the Marshalsea, yet he takes a liking for Tom and takes him under his wing. After Tom Fleet was easily my favourite character in the book. He’s devious, clever, observant and acidly humorous, but above all he’s loyal. I liked his care for Kitty Sparks, his ward, as there seems to be a genuine bond there and he really wants the best for her. Kitty was a great character, she’s spirited, strong and she doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, up to and including Fleet.
The Devil in the Marshalsea is one of my favourite debuts this year. Hodgson’s evocative writing makes for an immersive, gripping read, unspooling a complex web of intrigues and motivations to create a fascinating murder mystery. If this is only her debut novel, I can’t wait to see where she’ll go in the future. The Devil in the Marshalsea is a ‘can’t miss, must read’-debut for historical crime fiction fans. Highly recommended!
This book was provided for review by the publisher.