What do you get if you combined Dickens with 24? The answer, a bloody good read.
Antonia Hodgson’s novel “The Devil in the Marshalsea" is set with the backdrop of the cutthroat, gin soaked streets of London in 1727.
In the middle of the tale is roguish protagonist Tom Hawkins.
This charming man is suited to gambling with his life, his cockiness enrages envious men, his sex appeal excites the women, and the wine keeps his ‘devil may care’ attitude in full flow.
Luck for Tom takes a nasty turn at knife point in a darkened corner of Soho. Losing all his nights spoils sees him hauled before the courts and unable to pay off his debtors. His rich clergyman of a father foretold of the day where his sins would see his demise. Repent or be ruined. Tom’s pride won’t have him ask for a bailout, no he’s made his bed…shame it’s in a cell inside the most notorious prison in Southwalk.
Cast in shackles, the boatman delivers him to the gaol called Marshalsea.
But the debtors prison at first introduction surely shouldn’t be too bad for a resourceful fella like Tom? There’s a coffee shop inside with buxom waitresses keen to welcome this strapping stranger with wine, a hot meal and maybe a little more if he keeps giving them the eye.
Everyone seems interested in the newcomer especially the spiderous Samuel Fleet, who earned the reputation as the man the other inmates fear the most.
If only Tom hadn't upset the man responsible for all the torture devices on introduction. A school boy error that might come back to haunt him. Speaking of haunting, why are people talking in hushed voices about a ghostly apparation supposedly out for vengance? This place is suffocating in death, why should one ghost claim attention?
Many of the characters Tom engages inside the prison Antonia based on real people, after discovering their names on a register in the British Library and reading excerpts from a diary. The horrors Antonia describes did occur, the begging gates, the common side piled high with diseased bodies, and the rusty skullcaps tighened into place. But there were also sparse moments of relief for the fortunate ones with visits from the hairdresser and day trips out to the nearby taverns around Snow Fields, now known as Borough.
Wrapped around the historical depiction of prison life in 1700’s London is a bullet paced crime mystery. Antonia quickly puts a stranglehold on the reader into a claustrophobic world full of twists and turns, her characters are fleshed out by their survival tactics from the youngest messenger to the chief guard, and the reader is at mercy of Tom’s will and wits to escape.
Freedom may come for Tom if he can solve a brutal murder that happened only hours before, in the very bed he's acquired.
Will he uncover the truth behind what lurks in the prison or add to it's rising body count?
One thing is certain, if you dare to dance with the Devil in the Marshalsea there is always a price to pay...