Friday, October 4, 2019

Review of The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson (2014, Hodder)

London, 1727. Tom Hawkins needs to quickly come into some money to avoid being thrown in the debtors prison. Fortunately, he wins ten pounds at cards, but then is robbed on his way home while drunk. He’s sent to Marshalsea prison, which is run as a private concern. As long as family or friends can provide funds, the debtor can live a confined life but still access sustenance. If they can raise the whole debt, the prisoner can go free. If the prisoner cannot pay for his lodging or food then he is transferred to the commoner side, where the inmates are reliant on mercy and begging and several die of starvation and disease every day. Everybody inside the prison is on the make and Hawkins has to adapt quickly. The prison is unsettled by the ghost of Captain Roberts who was murdered a few months before. Hawkins is taken under the wing of the enigmatic Samuel Fleet, who the other inmates fear, suspecting he murdered Roberts. He’s also propositioned with an offer he cannot refuse – solve the murder and his debt will be paid and he’ll be a free man. The killer, however, does not want Hawkins poking around and soon there is a second body. Discovering the murderer is not straightforward given the prison is full of potential suspects.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is a whodunit set in a London debtors prison in 1727. Tom Hawkins, a young man who has dropped out of training for the church, finds himself in the prison as a debtor. The place is a shock to his sensibilities, with all the inmates and workers on the make, trying to survive in desperate straits. And he is on the privileged side of the prison, where those with the means to pay for sustenance can keep themselves out of the commoner part where inmates are reliant on charity to survive. It’s a brutal regime in which one needs their wits to get by. Hawkins has to adapt quickly, but he still goes through the ringer. Saviour seems to come in the form of a challenge – solve the murder of Captain Roberts that took place a few months before he entered and he'll have his debts cancelled and be set free. Hawkins turns amateur detective, but everybody has a story to spin or their own agenda and he’s unsure who to trust. Hodgson draws on real testimony about life in Marshalsea prison and the populates the story by a number of real-life historical characters associated with the prison. She spins the tale out with plenty of intrigue and twists and does an admirable job of creating a strong sense of place and history. The result is a well-researched, engaging historical murder mystery full of colourful characters that keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the murderer and the fate of Hawkins.

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