, , , , ,

Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. $15.

Given a choice, anyone would prefer the harshest desert or most savage jungle to this place. But it’s 1727, a cruel era, in London, a hard city, and the inmates of the Marshalsea prison have no choice: They owe money and must remain until their debts are paid. If they die, as many do, the prison governor lets the rats devour the corpses, until the bereaved relatives pay him a fee.

Marshalsea, as it was in 1773. Charles Dickens later wrote about it in Little Dorrit; his family had stayed there. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Marshalsea, as it was in 1773. Charles Dickens later wrote about it in Little Dorrit; his family had stayed there. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s more, those who still live must pay weekly rent or else be thrown into the Common Side, where the sick and penniless are crammed into filth-ridden, pestilential hovels, and none survive for long. Extorting debtors is therefore lucrative business, and William Acton, governor of the Marshalsea, has been known to whip inmates to death, even young children, to instill fear and obedience.

Into this hell-hole drops Thomas Hawkins, a young man who has found brothels and gaming tables more to his taste than divinity studies at Oxford. Tom has fallen on hard luck, having just been robbed of money with which he’d planned to repay his debt. That would be an ordinary tale, hardly worth notice at the Marshalsea, except that he bears an uncanny resemblance to a Captain Roberts, an inmate just found hanged. So Tom becomes the object of intense interest, more so when the only way he can save himself is to learn the truth behind Roberts’s death, a mystery whose investigation is likely to cost him his life.

What a brilliant setup, with enemies on every side, colossal stakes, victims of gross injustice, unseen motives, secrets worth lives, and dire penalties for trusting the wrong confidant. But Hodgson doesn’t stop there in this excellent novel, all the more impressive for being her first.

To begin with, she firmly establishes the prison milieu, where information is readily tradable for coins or favors that may extend life or make it slightly more bearable. This is the currency in which Tom must barter, and as a newcomer, he makes mistakes.

But it’s the title character in The Devil in the Marshalsea who steals the show. Samuel Fleet is a reputed spy, assassin, mastermind, and the only prisoner not in debt–he’s there for publishing seditious pamphlets. He’s also the prime suspect in Roberts’s death, which occurred in Fleet’s room–where, by the way, Tom is staying, at his host’s expense. A character Balzac would have loved, quicker and more devious than anyone else, Fleet defends his philosophy to Tom:

If you wish to survive in this gaol . . . in this world, then you must make people believe that you are the most ruthless, calculating, treacherous man they know. They must believe that you are capable of anything–the worst imaginable outrages.

As you may have gathered, surprises abound in this novel, yet, toward the end, I had an inkling of the solution. It didn’t bother me, because it wasn’t obvious, and the reversals came thick and fast, so I can’t say I really knew in my bones what would happen. What I minded more, though, were Hodgson’s occasional “little did I know” declarations in Tom’s voice, which undercut a tight, tense narrative. I never like that technique, unless it’s used once, at the very beginning.

But these are quibbles. The Devil in the Marshalsea is worth your time–and believe me, you won’t want to put it down.