Friday, 11 July 2014

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

review by Maryom
Tom Hawkins is used to living on his wits, making his 'living' at cards and gambling, but now his luck has deserted him and he finds himself in debt; in 1727 that means being sent to gaol. Inside the Marshalsea debtors' prison,  he's given a spare bed in the lodgings of Samuel Fleet, one of the few people imprisoned for matters other than debt and regarded by many as a devil, striking fear wherever he goes. The spare bed though turns out to have been that of Captain Roberts, a recently murdered inmate who now supposedly haunts the gaol. Tom is offered a deal - help track down Roberts' ruthless killer and he'll go free. Sidetracked by the captain's attractive widow, suspicious of his 'room-mate' Samuel Fleet (believed by many to be the murderer),victimised by his gaolers, Tom walks a dangerous line as he tries to uncover the truth.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is a richly atmospheric novel full of the sights and smells of this abominable place,brought to us through the naive eyes of Tom. At first he thinks he could settle quite comfortably -  until he realises that he's only seen the more presentable side of the Marshalsea and that beyond a dividing wall is the 'Common Side' where those without any money or outside influence are crammed together in the most appalling disease-ridden conditions. It's almost unbelievable that people could be mistreated in such a way but the end goal of the prison is to turn a profit, and there's always someone willing to turn a blind eye for that!

The novel's strengths lie more in historical atmosphere than detection. It's difficult at first to see why newcomer Tom is picked to investigate the murder - surely the Governor has men of his own who could have done the job? - but, through luck more than detective skills, he at last uncovers the culprit and, as with all good murder mysteries, everything is revealed at the end.
An interesting addition to historical crime novels - and I'm hoping there'll be more to come about Tom Hawkins.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Hodder & Stoughton
Genre - adult fiction, historical crime

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