Book Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson, Tom Hawkins #1

It’s 1727. Tom Hawkins is damned if he’s going to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a country parson. Not for him a quiet life of prayer and propriety. His preference is for wine, women, and cards. But there’s a sense of honor there too, and Tom won’t pull family strings to get himself out of debt—not even when faced with the appalling horrors of London’s notorious debtors’ prison: The Marshalsea Gaol. 

Within moments of his arrival in the Marshalsea, Hawkins learns there’s a murderer on the loose, a ghost is haunting the gaol, and that he’ll have to scrounge up the money to pay for his food, bed, and drink. He’s quick to accept an offer of free room and board from the mysterious Samuel Fleet—only to find out just hours later that it was Fleet’s last roommate who turned up dead. Tom’s choice is clear: get to the truth of the murder—or be the next to die.

When I read the synopsis of The Devil in the Marshalsea my interests were directly piqued, but nothing that sounded like this one. I have been reading historical fiction books but most with a fantasy twists hidden within, there are some historical dectectives being published but these do all feature in a fantasy influenced world. The Devil in the Marshalsea is a crime novel, and far from "pure and simple". Antonia Hodgson clearly shows that she knows what she is doing with her writing and produces an rich, elegant and terrifying story. 

The story opens with the focus on the main protagonist of the story Tom Hawkins. The living in 1727 is hard and England is going through some troubled times, people running into debts, making them unable to pay the bills on time. Tom finds himself in this position, he has always been a gambler and with his last few pounds he hopes to win enough to pay off his debts, and as if lady luck was on his side, he wins just enough and departs care free. However this is not a long lasting luck as he is soon robbed of the money that he has won. Now there really is no other option left than to go to the Marshalsea, the (in)famous debtor's prison. Tom finds himself in a harsh living environment amongst many different kind of debtor's. Because besides the average debtor who is in the Marshalsea to pay off his debt, a murderer is walking in the Marshalsea and several debtors have already started up turning dead... The murder of one person in particular, Captain Roberts, does offer Tom a chance to redeem his own debts, if he is able to solve this murder case he will be released from the Marshalsea. However solving this murder proves far from easy when everyone is working against you. In the story of The Devil in the Marshalsea Antonia Hodgson doesn't only focus on telling a murder story but involves many more factors to create a well rounded and rich story. There are elements hinting toward a bit of romance, but also one that shows the development of Tom, he is placed within a completely different environment of what he is normally used to and this does allow his character to on a "journey" of self discovery. 

One thing where The Devil in the Marshalsea excels in is producing the right atmospheric setting. The Marshalsea was a real debtor's prison in London back in the days, opening first in 1329 and closed in 1842. I wasn't that familiar with these kind of prisons and Antonia Hodgson directly got my attention, it is nice to read about something completely new. In using the Marshalsea in her story, Antonia Hodgson divided into a lot of the historical facts when it came down to the surroundings and describing everything, even though the place is pretty grim, she paints it with several delicate strokes and creates a vibrant setting for this story to take place. I really liked the whole setup of the Marshalsea with the Common side and the Master's side. In the Master's side people were able to rent rooms and live a certain life of luxury, the Master's side also included other things like a barber for example and had a bar. The Common side was something completely different, this was the grim and bleak prison, upto 300 person were put into a single cell from sunup till sunset. As I said before Antonia Hodgson really has a way with bringing this whole dark setting to life, it feels like you are just there with the debtor's. 

Besides the terrific setting that Antonia Hodgson creates, she also has created several memorable characters. For starters, the main protagonist Tom. From the start he is one of those characters that is hard to not to like. His life hasn't been easy and later on you elarn just why, he could never life up to the expectations of his father and perhaps he did enjoy certain pleasures to much, but in the end his father just banned him. His younger brother did have a hand in this and Tom has never forgotten just what his brother did to him. Luck also isn't on his side as he has to go to the Marshalsea to pay off his debt. However within the confines of the Marshalsea you do see Tom blossom and become someone completely different. He is thrown in the depths, a completely unknown environment and politics than he was heretofore used to. I was very pleased to see just how Tom's character developed as the story progressed, he first didn't dare to open his mouth when injustice was done, but in the last few chapters we find him agreeing with the governor and standing up against other debtor's as well. His transformation couldn't have gone better, it also isn't done within a page but gradually spread over the whole story. Another character that was intriuging was Samuel Fleet, Tom's roommate on the Master's side. Everyone in the Marshalsea distrusts or better yet fear Samuel Fleet. And I do have to admit that his character is a bit shady at first but Tom finds a good friend and alley within him and as the story progresses you are more and more introduced to facts that Samuel Fleet doesn't let his friend down, granted he is a bit of trickster, but wouldn't let you down at all. 

The ending of The Devil in the Marshalsea is one that is most interesting. The story focuses on Tom solving the murdercase of Captain Roberts and all along the way possible hints are being dropped to person who might have done it but nothing seems to be linked just yet, right until the ending when Tom discovers just who the murderer is. At this time, Tom had already went through a lot of harships but finds it in his heart to act with just that little human kindness it also seems that he is just tired by all that he has gone through and all he wants is just to sit back and relax for a while. Antonia Hodgson kept the action tight and managed to build up a great tension as the ending of The Devil in the Marshalsea got closer and closer. And you are in for one big surprise as to who the murderer was and why they were murdered. Even more so, I was surprised by the letter that Tom received, from one of his family member. It was a great ending, but there is a bit of an open ending and I read in the back that Antonia Hodgson is currently writing the sequel! Yes.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is one of the best alternate history debuts that I have read so far. Also it's not the normal alternate history that I read as The Devil in the Marshalsea is a pure crime thriller and normally I have the supernatural twist accompanying the story. This didn't take away that I didn't like it, more on the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed The Devil in the Marshalsea! Antonia Hogdson is a very creative writer who knows what to put down on paper to create one rich and atmospheric setting in her book. The idea of using the Marshalsea, the infamous debtor's prison in her story really inspired me to think differently, though the Master's side of it sounds pretty layed back and easy, there are enough dark and grim places still hidden within it. The second idea of letting a murderer run rampant within the confines of the Marshalsea added a thrilling sense to the story as, as an debtor you are locked in and cannot easily get out of it... At certain points Antonia Hodgson get that claustrophobic feeling of no escape just right. The writing style of Antonia Hodgson gives a very evocative setting that at times is pretty dark but in other moments has some rays of sunshine and with well thought out characters like Tom and Samuel make The Devil in the Marshalsea a definite recommendation. And luckily this is only the first book, if she managed to write such a story as a debut I am more than eager to see the direction the sequel will take.


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