Reviewed by Louise Wykes
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 rutheless 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.
I have to confess that I needed to look up what Marshalsea was before I read this book as had not heard about the notorious debtors’ prison which almost becomes a character in its own right in this vivid, exciting mystery tale.
The novel opens in 1727 where we are introduced to Tom Hawkins, he has one day to collect enough money to pay his landlord his overdue rent before he calls in the bailiffs. Tom has managed to borrow less than half the amount he needs from his closest friend and so to get the rest he decides to chance his luck at the gaming tables. Fate must be smiling on Tom as he wins all the money he needs and decides to celebrate at a local tavern but on the way home he is mugged and loses all the money he owes to his landlord and so finds himself straight in Marshalsea prison that day as justice is swiftly served.
On top of his predicament, Tom discovers that his former cellmate died in suspicious circumstances and may have been murdered and in fear for his life, he decides to set about investigating the circumstances of the man’s death.
The actual physical violence, cruelty, deception completely shocked me as it did Tom and the author paints such a vivid picture of the two sides of life in Marshalsea, there is the Master’s side which has its own horrific conditions but these are nothing in comparison to the sheer living hell shown in the Common side where vice, hunger, poverty and cruelty are features of everyday life in the prison.
This is such a fantastically written, exciting tale of mystery and deception and I loved the reckless charmer that is Tom, his spirits can’t be dampened and he is always ready to do whatever he needs to do to survive. I loved reading this fast-paced and fascinating story and hope it’s not the last we’ve seen of Tom Hawkins. Highly recommended!
I'd like to thank Kerry at Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a copy of this book to review and Louise for reviewing it for the blog.