The Devil in the Marshalsea, Antonia Hodgson, Hodder & Staughton, 2014
A murder-mystery set among the desperate and dangerous denizens of London’s Marshalsea Prison in 1727, The Devil in Marshalsea tells the story of lad-about-town Tom Hawkins who is tossed into the notorious prison for debt.
Hawkins’ only chance of escape is to find the killer of one Captain Roberts, who died in the jail before his arrival, and it’s a task that brings him into conflict with, and under the suspicion of, many within the prison walls.
There’s plenty of historical detail and the book delivers an insightful look into what life in Marshalsea would have been like – although as Hodgson points out in an historical note at the start, this is not the Marshalsea of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit – that wasn’t opened until 1800 on a different site while this one was located between Mermaid Court and what is now Newcomen Street in Southwark.
The characters are largely based on actual people – Hodgson goes to the trouble to describe the background to each in some explanatory endnotes – and their stories criss-cross the main narrative.
There’s plenty of twists along the way and the story plunges on at a cracking pace as Hawkins has to confront his worst fears and struggles to discern who is friend and who is foe in a world where everyone appears to be driven by their most base desires.
An enlightening read and, as is the case with a good murder-mystery, hard to put down. A terrific debut.
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