The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson is a splendid début novel. I love it when an author can describe the filth dripping from the walls so that I get an instant itch and the urge to check my room for anything decaying.
Antonia Hodgson’s work is murder for your eyes (you will exhaust them) and a killer for your health (you will not sleep until you finish it). But it is worth the ride.
The story starts in London. The year is 1727. It is the year that King George I dies while traveling to Hanover. His son, George, the Prince of Wales, becomes King George II of Great Britain. Isaac Newton passes as well.
Criminal profiling as we know it doesn’t exist yet. Cesare Lombroso’s birth is still a century away (1835) as is Alexandre Lacassagne’s (1843). What isn’t that far away is the ever-present curiosity in people trying to solve the puzzling question why something happened.
Tom Hawkins, betrayed by his stepbrother, flees the parental house and makes himself a new home in London. He discovers soon enough that not having a steady income does not sit well with debtors. You see, Tom lives big. So big that one night he must gamble all he has. But that victory does not prevent him from ending up in the Marshalsea.
This debtor’s goal is ruled with William Acton’s iron fist and he doesn’t hesitate to literally apply a little more pressure to keep things running smooth. The latter has been a real problem as the goal is restless. More so than normal. And it is up to Tom to discover who is running havoc, is killing people, where the ghosts come from, and all this on a deadline.
Hodgson’s book is fiction however it was partly inspired by real events. She incorporated details from real characters in the book. You can find more information about the Marshalsea here and read about the trial of the real William Acton here.
Once you reach chapter 20 you may think that you have (almost) solved all the mysteries. Be ready for the rollercoaster of your life!
A word of critique:
- the pacing of the story is uneven making some chapters drag along while the last few chapters race past you revealing the true plot. You need to stop there often to digest and reflect on the earlier chapters and the clues.
- The information in the Historical Note is crucial for the reader who is not familiar with this era. It should be incorporated in the prologue as I fear that is where people start to read a book. The Marshalsea was a privately run prison but not like the prisons we know now. The modern image of a prison does not include the free roaming of inmates who open a window to call out to a servant to bring up breakfast.
- A map of the two sides of the goal would be helpful for the reader.
Highly recommended reading!