The Devil In The Marshalsea (2014) by Antonia Hodgson

London, 1727. South of the Thames in Southwark stands the Marshalsea, the dreaded debtors’ prison. Fall into too much debt and you will be consigned to it – and once you’re inside, you need money to live in something resembling comfort, otherwise you’ll be consigned to the Common Side of the wall, a fast track to sickness and death.

Tom Hawkins, a man lured from the path of the church by the various pleasures of the London life, finds himself thrust into the Marshalsea at a time of turmoil – a debtor, Captain Roberts, was murdered and now his ghost stalks the prison.

Forced to share a cell with Samuel Fleet, a man hated and feared by the prison population, Hawkins finds himself with a simple choice – find the murderer of Captain Roberts or face death himself. But can anyone in the Marshalsea be trusted? And Samuel Fleet, it seems, has plans for Mr Hawkins…

Well, that’s more like it. I’ve written about my problems with reading recently, my inability to read for any length of time. Well, it seems all I needed was a damn good book.

I’ve not come across Antonia Hodgson’s work before, but this has been sitting on my Kindle for about a year – must have been the result of a 99p offer or something. I was out and about and hadn’t got the at-that-time unfinished Midsummer Murder with me, so I plumped for a random pick from the Historical Mystery folder – basically because I didn’t want to get confused with two classic novels. And what a lucky pick it was.

To be fair, it did win the Historical Dagger in 2015, and I’m glad that for once I agree with the Dagger judges. This is an outstanding novel.

The central character of Tom Hawkins is a troubled hero, thrust into the role of sleuth without really possessing the necessary skills. Luckily Samuel Fleet seems to have the necessary brainpower, if he would stop playing dangerous games with Tom, and their partnership, with the level of trust between them varying between “none” and “not much”, functions as a great centrepiece to the narrative. Fleet’s motivations remain hidden for the most part and this creates a superbly tense atmosphere.

Everyone in the Marshalsea has some sort of agenda, and plenty are willing to kill, even if they didn’t kill Captain Roberts, so there are more than enough suspects to go round. The suspects are all given some real personalities – no cardboard characters here – without slowing down the pace of the tale. The narrative keeps moving, with some chilling sequences that are really effective and kept me turning the pages.

If you’re looking for an out and out clued mystery tale, well, probably best to look elsewhere. Once the killer is unmasked (when they try to kill Hawkins, he doesn’t work it all out), there’s a “I should have realised” comment about a single sentence the killer uttered earlier in the book, but even that “clue” could have meant a dozen different things. But I’ll be honest, by that point, I didn’t really care. I’d been kept guessing all the way through the story and my jaw had hit the floor at least once by a genuinely unexpected turn of events. I had guessed the final twist, though – oh, hold on, the penultimate twist, the big one – but even then, I felt smart, rather than that it was obvious.

All in all, this was the book that I’ve been looking for for a while. A book I’ve been carrying around with me, sneaking the odd page or two whenever I can – and it’s been an age since I’ve done that. One of the best books that I’ve read this year, and I look forward immensely to reading the other three (which really should be read in order, as they would spoil at least two surprises in this one). To revert to an old catchphrase, Highly Recommended.

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