The devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson
Tom Hawkins bk 1. Hodder and Stoughton, 2014. ISBN
(Age: 16+) Recommended. Mystery. Historical crime. The Crime Writers' Association Historical Dagger (2014). It's London, 1727. Tom Hawkins is desperately trying to keep out of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, but when he is mugged and his money stolen, he ends up facing the appalling horrors of the place. He discovers that there is a murderer roaming the prison as well as the ghost of the murdered man, Captain Roberts. He rooms with Samuel Fleet, known as a devil, and is aghast to find out that he is sleeping in the bed where the murdered man was found. After being brutally beaten and tortured he is offered the only way out of the prison - find the murderer and quell the rumours that are beginning to taunt William Acton the turnkey of the prison and interfere with the huge profits that he and Sir Philip Meadows are making.
Tom Hawkins is a most likeable villain, a gambler, deep drinker and fond of the ladies. Brought up to be the successor to his father, a country parson, he finds that calling not to his taste. Instead he discovers the underbelly of London. However, there is a core of honour to him and he is eager to uncover who and why Captain Roberts was murdered. The range of characters that he encounters in prison, from the wicked William Acton to the bumbling chaplain, the clever Samuel Fleet and his protegee Kitty are all original and bring depth to the mystery.
Hodgson's well researched setting of the Marshalsea prison highlights the horror of what it was like to be in debt and thrown in goal in the 18th century. Descriptions of the terrible circumstances of the debtors, their hunger, and the cruelty and corruption of the gaolers provide a fascinating and complex background to this crime novel at the same time making the reader well aware of the differences between the rich and the poor.
The devil in the Marshalsea gripped my attention right from the beginning and its historical setting, engaging characters and tricky plot kept me reading. There is another book in the series, The last confession of Thomas Hawkins, which I look forward to pursuing.