Mariner Books, 400 pages, $15.95 (paperback) (c2014)
The Marshalsea. It should be the name of a seaside resort, not the name of the most infamous debtors’ prison in England. Based on a real place and real people, Antonia Hodgson has crafted a compelling and gruesome book set in the early 1700s.
Tom Hawkins could have been an English minister like his father. He could have led a righteous, pious, and respectable life somewhere in the Suffolk countryside. Instead, he throws away the figurative and literal riches bestowed upon him at birth: his educational opportunity at Oxford, his path to a religious sinecure, the possibility of a wife and chubby, rosy children who adore him.
Instead, he is a gambler and a drunk, and delights in the company of whores. For his libertine ways, he eventually finds himself heavily in debt. Forced to beg help from friends, Tom finally scrapes up enough to avoid being arrested. Then he is mugged, beaten, and then, lacking money, ignominiously tossed in the Marshalsea.
Tom’s one opportunity to avoid further degradation lies in being able to solve the murder of Captain John Roberts from within the prison. The captain was no better perhaps than Tom in his profligacy, but he had a wife and child who depended on him. After the captain’s death, his wife received an inheritance and was no longer required to reside in the prison. She has chosen to do so, however, to somehow discover who the murderer might be. She importunes Tom to help her. Furthermore, Tom’s great and dear friend, Charles, also begs him to discover the villain. Charles through his powerful sponsor can help Tom escape prison if the murderer is caught.
There are many obstacles in the way of Tom’s investigation, not the least of which is Samuel Fleet, Tom’s bloodthirsty and vicious roommate. The capricious prison governor also has it in for Tom, that is, when he is not feeding him and encouraging him to dance with his dainty wife. Then, of course, it is in the murderer’s best interest not to be discovered. In the vile hell of Marshalsea, one hand slaps Tom down and another raises him up. And sometimes it is the same hand doing the raising and slapping. Will Tom survive the Marshalsea?
Antonia Hodgson has done an incredible amount of research to present her tale of woe. She vividly presents the stench and gloom of the Marshalsea. There are scenes depicted that are not for those of delicate mind. It is also a shocking reminder of the cruelties of class snobbery and the offhanded way in which humans have mistreated other humans.
Tom Hawkins is not the brightest bulb in the drawer. Why anyone would think Tom could successfully solve a murder is puzzling. But, knowing that there are a couple of sequels, we know he survived and went on to other adventures. (Sorry, should that have been a spoiler alert?)
“The Devil in the Marshalsea” is well written, well researched, and an eye-opener. It is a cautionary tale as well, should we ever be tempted to disparage people simply because they are poor and without power.