Written by Antonia Hodgson – Debut novels rarely have quite the impact of The Devil in the Marshalsea, which is currently part of the sales-boosting Richard and Judy Book Club with WH Smith. It was also nominated for the CWA John Creasy Dagger and won the CWA Historical Dagger, though you don’t need to be a dedicated reader of historical crime to enjoy this novel set in London’s Marshalsea debtors’ prison in 1727. The author’s notes reveal her considerable research, yet Hodgson wears her learning lightly in a pacy, atmospheric story that never feels like a history lesson.
The Marshalsea was in Southwark, an area known for disreputable pleasures in the 18th century: “bear fights and cock fights; theatre and gambling; acrobats and fortune tellers; cheap beer and even cheaper Flemish whores.” Hodgson is not afraid to show life as it really was in 1727, and there’s a lot of swearing too. But this is also an historical whodunnit, so her busy plotting means she never lingers too long on the misery and suffering.
The novel is narrated by Tom Hawkins, who’s abandoned his destiny as a clergyman. At Oxford, he rebelled by gambling, drinking and visiting brothels. He’s on a slippery slope and facing debtors’ prison after failing to pay his landlord the 20 pounds, 10 shillings and sixpence that he owes. When Hawkins borrows some money from a friend, he gambles and wins enough to make a down payment. But then he’s robbed on the way home and his fate is sealed.
Hawkins is transported to the Marshalsea, which he describes as resembling an old castle keep. In fact, the governor, William Acton, refers to the Marshalsea as ‘my castle’ and this pockmarked bully rules it with an iron fist. Yet life in the prison might be bearable as long as you stay on the Master’s Side, where ladies and gentlemen with funds from family or friends can pay for a room, food and even a haircut. There are taverns, coffee houses and restaurants. Friends can visit with money and prisoners are sometimes escorted into the streets of Southwark.
However, this thin veneer of respectability masks a system of corruption and violence. On his first day, Hawkins witnesses Acton whip a boy half to death. Then there’s the casual cruelty of the turnkeys and prison clerks. Gradually, Hawkins realises that the real suffering is in the Common Side over the wall, where he’ll end up if he runs out of money. Conditions are so bad that several prisoners die every day from violence or gaol fever. Life is cheap in the Marshalsea.
Hawkins is initially told his money is only enough to provide accommodation with a roommate suffering from smallpox. But then he’s offered a spare bed by Samuel Fleet, a mysterious and feared figure in the prison. “There’s some that say the devil lives in the Marshalsea,” warns one character. Fleet might be the diabolical resident in question.
Samuel Fleet is certainly a fascinating character, a troublemaker with a shady past who likes to play games and trade secrets. He actually makes Hawkins seem a bit blandly heroic. The roommates soon fall out over an incident that leads to Hawkins having his head clamped in a metal skull cap and being chained up in the strong room, with corpses and rats for companions. It’s a moment of genuine horror in a novel based on actual accounts of 18th century prison life.
The murder mystery is perhaps the weakest element. Hawkins is offered a chance of freedom if he solves the recent murder of a Captain Roberts – the gentleman whose bed he now occupies. Over the course of five days, an awful lot has to happen. There’s a prison ghost (based on a real account), a deranged French fortune teller and a secret passageway, while characters fall in love, get bumped off and never know who to trust. It’s artfully done and highly readable, though the atmospheric prose dips when the plotting goes into overdrive.
Nevertheless, Hodgson has fashioned a fine first novel out of her historical research and the real-life characters in the Marshalsea. A sequel is due to be published in spring 2015.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars