What’s it all about?:
London, 1727 – and Tom Hawkins is about to fall from his heaven of card games, brothels and coffee-houses into the hell of a debtors’ prison.
The Marshalsea is a savage world of its own, with simple rules: those with family or friends who can lend them a little money may survive in relative comfort. Those with none will starve in squalor and disease. And those who try to escape will suffer a gruesome fate at the hands of the gaol’s ruthless governor and his cronies.
The trouble is, Tom Hawkins has never been good at following rules – even simple ones. And the recent grisly murder of a debtor, Captain Roberts, has brought further terror to the gaol. While the Captain’s beautiful widow cries for justice, the finger of suspicion points only one way: to the sly, enigmatic figure of Samuel Fleet.
Some call Fleet a devil, a man to avoid at all costs. But Tom Hawkins is sharing his cell. Soon, Tom’s choice is clear: get to the truth of the murder – or be the next to die.
A twisting mystery, a dazzling evocation of early 18th Century London, THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA is a thrilling debut novel full of intrigue and suspense.
What did I think?:
I usually try not to judge a book by its cover and, when I have and am proved wrong by the brilliance of the writing (case in point, Me Before You – Jojo Moyes), I hang my head in shame and promise never to do it again. However, I was floored again by this fantastic debut novel. To be totally honest, if I had seen this particular novel on the shelves and read the synopsis, I may not have picked it up. The synopsis and cover art do not do justice to the story within The Devil In The Marshalsea and I’m so glad I’ve read it. It was picked as part of the Richard and Judy Autumn Book Club 2014 here in the UK which I always follow and is definitely one of my favourite reads off that particular list. Our main character is Tom Hawkins, a bit of a cheeky chappie who has had the good fortune to be raised as a gentleman but rebelled against his father’s wishes to join the clergy and is having the time of his life in London where temptation, drink, gambling and women go hand in hand. Unfortunately for Tom, he has too much of a good time and ends up in debt up to his eyeballs. It is not long before his debtors catch up with him and he is imprisoned in the notorious Marshalsea prison until he can find a way to consolidate his money problems.
Tom soon finds himself in a terrible predicament. It seems that you have to know the right people with the right cash to get any decent standard of living within the prison and while his cell-mate, Samuel Fleet assists him in some ways rumours about the enigmatic Fleet are widespread. And if you can’t pay? Over to the “Common” side where prisoners are literally squashed into cells, punishment and killings are rife and due to the prevalence of disease (and other factors) bodies are stacked up in piles to be removed at some point, but the gaolers are in no hurry to carry out such a menial task. Ruling over the prison with an iron fist and a cunning mind is William Acton, the sort of man that you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of.
The second thread of the novel involves the murder of a in-mate called Captain Roberts, perpetuated just before Tom enters the prison and as yet, remains unsolved. But if the rumours are true, could Tom be sharing his cell with the devil? On meeting the widow of the murdered man, Tom becomes embroiled in solving the case but he must be incredibly careful about exactly where he treads, as the Marshalsea prison becomes a graveyard for many men, especially those that get a bit too close to the truth for comfort.
It didn’t long for me to become completely taken in by this wonderful debut novel. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe that it was a debut, as the writing is so assured and accomplished. One of the most interesting parts about the story is that the Marshalsea actually existed from 1373 to 1842 and was well known for the richer and poorer sides of the prison. The poorest relied on charity for their food and drink while their richer counterparts across the fence had access to their own bar and restaurant. Starvation and torture with skullcaps and thumbscrews appeared to be the norm, in fact a parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death within a three-month period, and that eight to ten were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather. The author has obviously done her research with this novel and I was fascinated to read a work of fiction about a place that I had never heard of previously. The plot completely blew me away, as I mentioned the synopsis does not do it justice and there was one particular scene involving torture that had me on the edge of my seat like a quivering wreck. This is definitely an author to watch out for and I’m eagerly anticipating what she’s going to do next. If it’s anything like this novel I just know it’s going to be amazing.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):