The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson.
Published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2014.
This is Antonia Hogson's first novel and is based around the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, in South London, in 1727.
Tom Hawkins, a young man from Suffolk, unlucky at cards, owes his landlord too much money. When he is mugged and his night’s winnings are stolen his last chance at remaining a free man is lost. Tom knows he needs to keep his wits about him if he is to survive the squalor and knavery inside the prison.
We, as readers, are right in the filth with Tom, seeing, smelling the same things that he does and feeling his desperation and confusion. An eighteenth century London debtor’s prison was not a good place to find yourself. And yet, Antonia opens up a whole world that mirrors the English class system and enables society to follow set patterns. Tom is initially thrown into the Masters’ Side of the prison where there is a coffee shop, a restaurant and hawkers selling necessities. Accommodation is pretty rough, and the cost of living (literally, the cost of staying alive) is high. In the Tapster’s Room Tom can look down on the Common Side where hundreds of men, women and children are packed into a few rooms with an inadequate courtyard. The chasm between the two sides makes the Masters’ Side look like heaven compared to the Common Side.
In this hell Tom knows he must get out quick, before his meagre funds run out and he is thrown onto the Common Side. He is given a means to do this by the Knight Marshall of the prison who wants him to find out if the recent death of a gentleman was suicide or murder. Tom’s investigations then draw him closer to those very hazards that he wants to avoid.
The novel is gripping, the story well-told. I was frustrated by Tom’s ham-fisted way of proceeding, but it was great to read about a protagonist who is not smarter than the people around him. The first-person point of view increases the sense of claustrophobia. We only see what’s going on from Tom’s perspective, but there are enough pointers for the reader to build their own theory about the killer.
I liked the attention to detail. There were a few words I’d never come across, but I was able to make sense of the conjured story. I can go and check the words out easily enough. I expect a story based in a period I know little about to include some hard words – not a problem.
I did find that the twists and turns kept hinting that the murderer was more and more close-to-home (a usual ploy). Ultimately, I felt that there were a lot of well-told twists in the story, but also a few less-well-told ones. By the end of the book I felt relieved with Tom to escape such a place of despair. I also felt compassion for the hundreds, thousands of people whose lives were ruined by their bad luck, or bad judgement leading to their imprisonment (and likely death). I hoped that Tom would escape, then return, tear down the walls and release everybody. That didn’t happen, either in the story, or in real life. That identification of the reader with Tom and the plight of all the debtors is a testament to how well Antonia has drawn us into that world with this novel.