The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson is a gritty historical thriller that I could not put down. The author did a great job of pulling me into the story and into the horrifying world of a debtors’ prison in early eighteenth century London, so I loved the book even though I never did warm to the protagonist.
Tom’s pride will not allow him to beg his father. After all, the parson, deeply humiliated when Tom’s sins were paraded in front of the parish, disinherited him. So Tom gambles the little Charles is able to scrape together and, miracle of miracles, wins enough to save his skin. A little celebration is in order, naturally. After dulling his wits with drink and flirtation with a favorite madam, he sets off for his lodging too late at night, and he’s promptly robbed.
Thus, our hero is sent to Marshalsea after all.
Tom is not a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, no one deserves Marshalsea. The prison is a mini-city ruled by greedy tyrants. It’s divided into the Master’s Side, where those who still have friends and family can pay rent, buy food, and survive for a time, and the Common Side ("over the wall") where the truly destitute are thrown to die.
Tom is struck by terror at first and maybe even a little remorse as he realizes how close he is to ignoble death. He’s a gentleman, after all, and entitled to better. Fortunately, others seem to agree, but for differing reasons.
First, he is young, handsome, and bears a passing resemblance to a prisoner of Marshalsea who was recently murdered, Captain Roberts. Roberts had friends and left behind a beautiful widow. They want him avenged. Even his ghost cries out for vengeance. And they think Tom may be able to help.
Second, friend Charles happens to work for Sir Phillip Meadows, who administers the Marshalsea in the king’s name (meaning he hires the men who oversee it and make a tidy profit by all the corruption.) Tom depends on Charles to help him as best he can, and Charles comes back with this thin thread of hope: if Tom can solve the murder, Sir Phillip will be obliged and Tom’s debts will be forgiven.
Finally, there is Sam Fleet, a threatening fellow prisoner, universally hated in the prison and the prime suspect in the murder. Sam was Captain Roberts’ roommate until the night of his unfortunate demise. He’s taken a strange interest in Tom, including arranging to have Tom for his new roommate.
Tom is in the prison for five days with the stakes growing higher each day. He must solve the mystery or find himself thrown over to the Common Side, if he isn’t murdered first.
Tom has some redeeming characteristics. He is generous and charitable. He doesn’t let fear stop him from doing the right thing. And he is loyal to men who have done him a good turn. (As long as he remembers.) But Tom’s character seems to run fairly shallow. This is particularly true where women are concerned.
Generally, for me to really love a book, I have to be more impressed with the protagonist. I was much more impressed with Tom’s nemesis/co-conspirator Sam Fleet and with the cast of characters populating the jail than with Tom. The twists and turns of plot kept me turning the pages. And the star of the book was the prison itself. A sequel has just been released, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, and I’ve got it on my to-read list. I’m curious to see if the character is deepened by his experiences in this book or if he’ll skate over the surface of another absorbing mystery.