The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

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The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: 1720s London at its bawdy, tawdry best and with a murder mystery to boot. Sirrah, we miss this one at our peril! (Too much do you think?)
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-1444775419

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Shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2015

1727: The Marshalsea prison is hell on Earth and a Damoclesian sword over the heads of prospective debtors. Tom Hawkins, gambler and bon viveur, has always stayed one step ahead of it until, ironically, the day of his big win. He's mugged, his winnings are stolen and Tom's hurled into the depths of Sheol itself. Is it as bad as he thought? Worse! Not only does he have to survive the cruel and brutal deprivations but a murderer walks the prison's corridors.

If anyone has ever doubted the advice that Little Brown's Editor-in-Chief dispenses to authors, they should doubt no more. The E-i-C in this case is Antonia Hodgson and the reason? She's put her money where her mouth is (or rather her talent where her pen is) turning author with a stonker of a debut novel.

This is hist fict at its finest, appealing to those of us who hanker after offerings from people like Bernard Cornwell and Andrew Pepper and demonstrating that Antonia is at least as good. For when we step into the 18th century London of 25 year old Tom Hawkins, we step into a Hogarth etching. The sights and smells are all there even before we get to Marshalsea prison. In fact it's evoked well enough to make us careful where we put our feet.

The notorious Marshalsea existed in Southwark, South London until its closure in 1842 and seems as incredible to us as it must have been horrific to its inmates.

Murderers, spies and debtors are mixed together in a dark mockery of a village as long as they have enough money. For the financially able (those on the 'Master's Side') there was a coffee shop, a pub and trusted prisoners can pop out for the day. Rooms are shared with just one other and the rent and payments the prisoners make to remain here go to dubious officials such as turnkey William Acton (one of the real people mixed with the fictional). Even a debtor could be there for an indeterminate amount of time; it all depends on how their creditors feel about it.

This 'village' isn't standard class though. Without the requisite funds, poverty buys a corner of a stinking, infested cell on the 'Poor Side'; a place devoid of hope. The only face of kindness who visits these much less fortunate is the prison chaplain, Rev Woodburn whose attempts at applying caring (albeit a pious brand) are rejected and stifled.

Tom is one of those blessed with funds but even then he's thrown into a terrifying fight for survival reminding him how far away his middle class roots are. He also becomes our eyes as this is strange to him too. The hardest thing for Tom (next to losing his liberty) is choosing who to trust (or not to trust) – something that becomes a game with higher stakes than he's used to.

Talking about what we're used to, a high adventure/mystery novel normally forfeits characterisation for action. On the whole we don't mind if the action's worth it. However Antonia knows how to balance both.

Yes, the action is well worth it; the thrill of Tom's race to unmask the murderer and the possible repercussions of failure keep the pages turning. However there is no trade off: we're also given wonderfully complex characters such as Tom's sinister cell-mate Samuel Fleet. Right up till almost the last moment we don't know whose side he's on or the past that he conceals.

Rarely has fear, filth and paranoia been so entertaining. The good news is that the sequel is currently being written so hopefully Antonia will occupy both sides of the publishing house desk for some time to come.

Thank you, Hodder & Stoughton for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you enjoy 18th century crime novels, allow us to direct you to The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor. You might also enjoy the author's A Death at Fountains Abbey.

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Buy The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson at Booklists.jpg The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson is in the Top Ten General Fiction Books of 2014.


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Jim Dean said:

Just finished this - utterly outstanding, a compelling read which is the front-runner for my favourite adult novel of the year. I thought villains and heroes alike here were brilliantly complex. Great review!