Hodgson, Antonia - 'The Devil in the Marshalsea'
This debut historical mystery thriller by Antonia Hodgson is absolutely breathtaking in its thrilling originality. It is already the winner of the CWA Historical Dagger Award which is no mean feat for a book from a debut author. It is set in the year 1727 in Georgian London; Tom Hawkins is the twenty-five-year-old spendthrift of a gentleman who has fallen on hard times and been threatened that he must clear up the arrears on the rent for his lodgings or else! Fortunately he wins some money playing cards but is then attacked by robbers and left unconscious in the street - minus his wallet, and even the ornate buttons on his shirt.
The following day he is arrested by bailiffs as he cannot pay them the £20 he owes his landlord and is taken, in chains, to the Marshalsea Debtors prison. This is a dreadful place and the author has really done extensive research reading all contemporary books of the time including those of people who have experienced life at first hand in this prison.
There are two levels to the prison, there is a section where people completely without any money are sent and those that go there really suffer incredible hardship and often death but there is a different section where people such as Tom Hawkins end up as they are able to get some money from friends outside or are able to sell possessions to raise funds to pay for a basic lodging and some limited comforts.
After Tom has settled in and understands more of his surroundings he learns that there was a recent murder in his section and a ghost is supposed to haunt the prison. Tom decides to investigate these happenings and has many frightening adventures before we reach the very dramatic conclusion.
This book is not for those who are easily shocked as in order to give a true to life picture of what happened in 1727, the characters swear and curse an awful lot in a very colourful manner, similar perhaps to working men, which apparently is what happened at the time as the author explains in a preface.
I was incredibly impressed by this author's scholarship and the extensive research she has done in the British Library and elsewhere and the very high quality and sheer readability of this story. Once I started it it was not easy to put down until I reached the astonishing conclusion. I think it is the very best historical mystery I have read for a long time and I was blown away by it and I very strongly recommend it.
Terry Halligan, England
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