I don’t read enough historical fiction, something I was mulling over recently, so when my lovely pal Barbara chose Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea as her choice for our newly formed book club I was intrigued. I find historical fiction, unless it’s set in the Victorian period, a tricky beast yet as this was a crime novel set in one of London’s most infamous debtors prisons I thought this would be an interesting way to give the genre another whirl especially with a novel that won the CWA Historical Dagger.
Currently loans and debts are something most of us deal with in some way, be it credit cards or mortgages. Yet in times gone by you couldn’t get away with a court summons and paying something off in instalments or having the bailiffs round, you had something much scarier and dangerous, a debtor’s prison. It is in such a place, the Marshalsea in London, which Tom Hawkins finds himself after owing his landlord ten pounds in rent in 1727 penniless and ex communicated from his father.
Not only was a debtors prison somewhere you wouldn’t want to end up, it wasn’t somewhere you would want to get stuck in, only too easy in a place like Marshalsea where everything has a price, or indeed another debt attached. The only way it looks like it he might be able to get out again is to solve the murder of Captain Roberts, which someone tried to make look like a suicide as much as they could. What could make his mission all the easier, or more realistically all the more dangerous and terrifying is that somehow Hawkins has accidentally ended up in debt to and in the same room as the prime suspect, Samuel Fleet.
‘A roaring lion?’ Mrs Bradshaw sniffed. ‘A hissing snake’s more like it, slithering about the place, studying you with those nasty black eyes of his.’
Samuel Fleet. It had to be. I shifted uneasily in my chair.
‘Mrs Bradshaw,’ Woodburn tutted. ‘You cannot accuse a man of murder just because —’
‘He’s not a man,’ she cried. ‘He’s a demon.’
‘What’s this?’ Kitty called from across the room. ‘Do you speak of Mr Fleet?’
‘Mr Woodburn,’ I said quietly. ‘Do you believe it?’
He sighed and shook his head. ‘I cannot say, sir. But I fear he is capable of the very worst crimes.’ He held my gaze. ‘The very worst.’
From the start Hodgson had me with the novels tension and in particular with Samuel Fleet himself, who we initially see as the devil of the title, and his possible involvement in the murder (I am one of those annoying guessers who will instantly think what meets the eye cannot possibly be the case, you will have to read the book to see if I am wrong or not) of Captain Roberts. I was also hooked by the prison itself, especially the fact there were two sides and prisoners did all they could to avoid ending up in the poorer side where sickness and death were almost your only way out, well if your family could afford to pay to get your body removed.
Hodgson also creates a very good lead character with Hawkins. From the off she had me in sympathy with our protagonist’s predicament despite the fact he is quite clearly a bit of a rascal. We soon learn that despite his father’s intention that he becomes a man of the cloth Hawkins instead becomes a man who like to gamble and while away his time with the ladies or in the taverns of London’s West End, like Moll King’s coffee house. This is something else I liked about the book overall, it is a book about the cheeky, slightly scandalous and rather criminal people of London at that time and how both they, and indeed the richer echelons of society, would try and make as much money as they could out of any poor man in any unfortunate situation.
Grace had – no doubt with a good deal of pride and effort – managed to find me a bed in the meanest room in the filthiest ward in the worst building on the Master’s Side. The landings were filled with rubbish, full chamber pots still waiting to be collected by each door, fouling the air. As we passed one room I heard the familiar sound of a bed slamming against a wall, followed by a long guttural grunt of release. Grace’s mouth tightened to a thin line. ‘O’Rourke. Nine pounds, twelve shillings.’ A final grunt. ‘And tuppence.’
As fascinating as I found the Marshalsea, occasionally I couldn’t quite envisage it or understand it. For example I loved discovering how prisoners made businesses within the prison but I couldn’t understand why some people would gladly live there after their sentencing and not want to leave. Nor could I understand why when some of them were allowed to go out during the day they didn’t just scarper. I felt like I needed more of this additional detail, yet with all the characters and the crime and Hawkins background this would have made the book into an epic and as it was occasionally I felt it could lose the odd paragraph in each chapter, the pace was really fast for the first third, then seemed to really slow down until the final few chapters when it cranked up dramatically again.
Overall I thought it was a good solid twisty thriller, if a touch overly long, and found the historical elements of it really fascinating. Hodgson does that thing I really respect in clearly having researched the era and the prison, without hitting us over the head with a reference book. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the insight into the naughty, saucy and dark underbelly of London. I think my underlying issue was that every so often found I was less interested in Hawkins, and indeed the crime, as the novel went on and was actually hankering after the tale of Samuel Fleet and indeed the plight of those on the common side. So I guess I would call The Devil in the Marshalsea a bit of a mixed bag for me.
Interestingly most of my book group felt the same, we enjoyed it as an escapist read yet occasionally found ourselves confused by it and that Samuel Fleet was the story within the story that we were actually the most drawn to. What I found fascinating was that the one member who doesn’t like crime novels absolutely loved it and did not want it to end. So as you can imagine we had a blinking good natter about it though, so an ideal book group choice. Who else has read it and what did you make of it?