If, like me, you have something of a phobia of going to prison then you might want to take care when picking up THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA. Even though it describes events taking place nearly 300 years ago, its worryingly realistic and brutal depiction of prison life gave me more than one nightmare and I’ve never been quite so glad to be reading rather than experiencing.
It’s jolly good though.
It tells the story of Tom Hawkins: parson’s son, spendthrift, gambler, rake and reluctant amateur sleuth. In 1727 he almost manages to avoid being consigned to the Marshalsea – London’s debtor’s prison – through some successful last minute gambling but is attacked, has his winnings stolen and cannot avoid his fate. Once inside his one hope of legitimate escape – and even of avoiding the worst section of the prison where those without influential friends or money are packed like sardines until they die of some horrendous illness – is to discover who murdered Captain Roberts in the prison some days earlier. Captain Roberts’ ghost is said to haunt the prison which is causing unrest amongst the inmates and his wife is still living there while trying to prove her husband didn’t commit suicide which is making things awkward for the institution’s Governor.
The book won the CWA Historical Dagger Award in 2014 and it’s not hard to see why. The countless hours of research are evident, though well-hidden, in hundreds of small and mostly horrific details of sights, sounds and smells that Hodgson evokes. Even without the explanatory afterward it’s clear that this is the best kind of historical fiction, weaving facts and make-believe so that the reader can’t see the boundaries but ‘feels’ the authenticity in every word.
The characterisations too are larger than life. It is impossible not to fall for Tom Hawkins at least a little bit, even though he is a cad at times and makes the worst decision possible in almost every scenario life puts before him. But he is honourable, in his way. And bloody funny. I’ll forgive a lot of foibles if you make me laugh. The people he knows and meets are equally well-drawn and it’s never clear who Tom – or readers – can trust which is quite delicious. His cellmate – Samuel Fleet – for example is almost universally despised and thought by many to be Captain Roberts’ murderer. He plays a cruel trick on Tom that nearly gets him killed. But even so there is something to like about him. There are others too many to do justice to here but many of them have stayed with me long after I finished the book which is always a good sign.
The mystery itself is probably the book’s weakest element, though that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Merely that the other aspects of the book take precedence. At least for me. Perhaps this is in part because stories in which the protagonist is in nearly constant mortal danger are not my favourites. I think heroes of this type have limited scope for growth (which is why I’m not overly keen to read this book’s successor which sees Tom charged with murder and, presumably, having to again free himself from near-certain death). The resolution though is very satisfying and not easily predictable and there are plenty of twists and turns before we get there.
THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA is not for the feint of heart. Its language is often blue and the horrors it describes are much more unsettling than the average serial killer book’s because they are so much a part of daily life. Honestly I don’t know how anyone came out of such a place as Hodgson’s Marshalsea alive let alone with their sanity in tact. I was sleeping with the lights on just reading about it. But if historical romps and loveable rogues are your kind of thing then I highly recommend you give this one a go.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton 
Length 401 pages
Format eBook (Kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Tom Hawkins series