It happens to the best of us. We see a book we like the look of – like The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson – and pick it up. Then, after reading the blurb, we realise it is a sequel.
We can’t read that yet! Instantly, we put it down and bother the nearest bookseller for the first book. There is an order to these things, after all. Although there are some strange people who would ignore book chronology completely, I am not one of them.
So, when I finally got my hands on The Devil in Marshalsea, what did I think of it?
Winner of the CWA Historical Dagger Award 2014, set in 1727, The Devil in the Marshalsea follows the gentleman Thomas Hawkins. Attempting to bury his past, and his senses, in card games and coffee houses, Tom lands in the Marshalsea – a debtors gaol, notorious for its horrid conditions and dripping with corruption.
Tom is not one to be idle when his life is at stake. So when an opportunity comes to catch the murderer of a former prison Captain, in exchange for his freedom, he leaps at the opportunity.
But all is not what it seems, down in the Marshalea. There is danger at every turn – But for Thomas, nothing can keep a good gentleman down.
As a historical crime novel, it’s important for the author to do their homework about the era they are writing in. The last thing you want is to say something too modern – or, for a more perceptive reader, too historically inaccurate – that will boot-kick them out of the narrative.
Hodgson, however, has clearly done her homework. Gaols and rakes, corrupt prison guards and lovable rogues of the 1700’s. This book is dripping in history. Perhaps, I think, too much.
The plot of this novel is a slow starter. We are introduced to characters, places, and facts about the gaol, long before the plot finds its momentum. For the first half of the novel, I felt that the author was focusing too heavily in painting the historical picture of the gaol and the time period – of showing us the research she has done.
I commend her 100% for her hard work. The extent of her research is incredibly impressive. Yet lots of research does not make a fast paced plot, nor one that ensnares you.
Yet, while I felt the plot drags its heels, the protagonist does anything but.
Thomas Hawkins is a magnificent example of a lovable rogue (perfect for my book theme of this month’s Book Reviews) He’s charming, charismatic, energetic in his observations and a thoroughly entertaining lens to view the disgusting and dangerous walls of the Marshalsea. Though he is a drunkard, a womanizer, a scoundrel and an arrogant ass, you can’t help but root for him as he finds himself more and more tangled in the mysteries of the gaol.
Now and then, when I felt the plot was taking too long to rear its head, I would wonder if I should keep reading – and every time, the captivating, witty voice of Thomas Hawkins drew me back in, as though he had burst through the doors of the story and offered me another round of punch.
And when the plot finally picked up pace, when all the foreshadowing of the narrative began to pay-off, I had an absolute blast. The twist was clever and I especially loved the enigmatic mystery man Samuel Fleet, who was a perfect counterpart to Hawkins from beginning to end.
If you are interested in historical fiction, or lovable rogue protagonists, I ask you to give this book a try. Yes, the plot can be a slow burn in places, and the story sometimes places a greater emphasis on the historical of historical crime.
But, for me, a good character can save a story. It can make you return to it time and again, despite its shortcomings, if only to see the world through their eyes. And for me, Thomas Hawkins was that character.
Have you read The Devil in the Marshalsea? Are there any other lovable rogues you absolutely adore? Leave a comment down below, or let me know on my Twitter @ERHollands. And hey, why not check out my review of its sequel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, while you’re here!