The winner of the CWA Historical Dagger, The Devil in the Marshalsea is the debut novel of Antonia Hodgson. The title has led to me having this song stuck in my head all week, and I really hope is a play on words-The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea being another way of saying betwixt a rock and a hard place-which this book really is about-inbetween debt and death, which is worse?
Tom Hawkins is a twenty-five year old rake, who has gambled and whored away his money in the most depraved of early Georgian London’s Coffee Houses. Sent to the Marshalsea Prison for debt, he becomes involved in the mystery that has caused no end of trouble within the gaol-who killed Captain Roberts? Hawkins soon makes enemies with most of the gaol’s inhabitants, including the frankly psychotic governor William Acton, and must go through his own hell in order to discover the murderer, and acquire his freedom.
This book is more than just a murder mystery, although that part is well-played out with some lovely little twists to keep the story going. This is a clearly very well researched piece of social history that is all the more relevent today. Debt and the ways it traps people in a horrendous circle of hope of release, and then anguish on that hope being inevitably dashed, is something that, in the age of pay-day loan companies and endless credit cards still to be payed off from before everything went wrong and the powers that be where willingly promoting to my generation seemingly endless free money, should be shown for what it is.
Of course, these days you’re not likely to be chained to a rotting plague infested corpse for missing a payment-you just loose all rights to own your own home or have any kind of future. Back in 1727, however, you have two options-pray that you had some way of making a little money so that you could buy yourself a place in the ‘Masters’ side of the debtors gaol-where you could make use of the Tap Room, barbers and coffeehouses, or face the ‘Commons’ side, where you would more than likely die one of several horrible deaths. Of course, you would more than likely die on the Masters side too-you’d be sharing a room with someone dying from small pox, or be beaten to death for looking at the governor’s wife in a funny way-but at least you wouldn’t have the smell of the Commons to cope with.
This book is really very very horrible, and rightly so, these were dreadful times. At times the horror seems a little cartoonish and for the first twenty pages I did find myself having a chuckle on occasion at how bleak everything was. There is something darkly comic about Hodgson’s writing but it really is very dark. It is also very very quick, the pace drops occasionally but I otherwise rattled through this book. It would make a cracking beach read, if you’re looking for something with slightly less froth.
The Devil in the Marshalsea also read a lot like the first in a series-which there is no indication of it being on the press blurb I want sent alongside it but which I very much hope it is. Tom Hawkins is wonderful, a real scallywag with a heart and I very much hope to see more of him investigating equally repulsive parts of a time in history that doesn’t get explored half as much as it should within historical fiction.