Written by Antonia Hodgson — By day, Antonia Hodgson is editor-in-chief at the publishing house Little Brown UK. Back in 2014, she made her crime fiction debut with The Devil In the Marshalsea, a novel that was selected by the Richard & Judy Bookclub to be one of its monthly books. It also won that year’s CWA Historical Dagger. She followed that with The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins last year, and A Death at Fountains Abbey is the third book in the series.
Thomas Hawkins is the son of a clergyman who has spent much of his life rebelling against any rules he feels have been imposed on him, and landing himself in varying degrees of trouble in the process. In his first outing, his various debts saw him sharing a cell with a murderer in the infamous Marshalsea Prison. His second saw him being brought back from death having been found guilty of murder and a taking a trip to the scaffold. Now he’s heading up north on a mission for Queen Caroline, wife of George II. His arm is being twisted, though. If he doesn’t carry it out he’ll see his ‘wife’ Kitty hanged when the truth about her involvement in a man’s death is revealed.
The story opens in 1701 with a fire at John Aislabie’s Red Lion Square home. Housemaid Molly Gaining starts the fire in an attic room, intending it to be a distraction to cover her theft of money and jewels from her employer, but the blaze steadily consumes the house killing Aislabie’s wife, Ann, and youngest daughter, Lizzie.
Moving forward 27 years, Aislabie has enjoyed a fairly successful political career, which has seen him serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is a controversial figure who was involved in the South Sea Bubble of 1720 in his role as Treasurer to the Navy, which ruined many families. It also saw the real-life Aislabie expelled from Parliament and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. Now living at Studley Royal in Yorkshire with his second wife, Lady Judith, Aislabie finds himself being threatened. He has been receiving badly written letters and then, on the day of Hawkins’ arrival, the bloody carcass of a deer is dumped on his doorstep. The doe’s insides have been removed but the dead fawn it was carrying has been placed back inside the empty cavity. Someone wants to ensure that Aislabie gets the message. The deer is clearly meant to be him, but is Elizabeth Fairwood, the young widow staying at Studley Royal, who claims to be his long dead infant daughter, also in danger? More than one member of the household is doubtful of her claim and this presents Thomas Hawkins with yet another mystery to solve.
Although its possible to read this as a standalone novel, it’s probably better to read the previous two books first as you’d gather a more rounded picture of Hawkins, Kitty and young Sam, a young criminal Hawkins met in the Marshalsea and took as his ward. If this is your first foray into the series, you’re more likely to form the opinion for much of the book that Hawkins isn’t really a likeable character. Some might see him as the heroic rebel, but with the privileged upbringing he has enjoyed, in contrast with Kitty and Sam’s, turning his back on it by living as a wastrel just seems childish. He isn’t much interested in adhering to society’s norms, although he is aware that making his common law living arrangements with Kitty public knowledge would be problematic for his creditability as an investigator. What redeems Thomas is the fact that it’s very clear that he’s attached to both Kitty and Sam. Their safety is clearly of paramount importance to him, and it’s this trait you fix on.
A Death at Fountains Abbey is an entertaining read, but its rather slow to get going. There isn’t actually a death until you’re a substantial way into proceedings, and Thomas’ true mission only really picks up late into the story too, although you are vaguely aware that Sam is handling things on that score. One aspect of the book that the historical thriller fan will enjoy is the fact that its a story built around real people and some real events. It makes the characters more solid and the story more believable. If you’ve read and enjoyed Antonia Hodgson’s earlier books then this is well worth a read.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 3 Stars