Tom Hawkins has been leading a dissolute life ever since his ordination ceremony was sabotaged by his stepbrother’s reports of his behavior at school. In a desperate attempt to save himself from debtor’s prison, he goes out gambling with his disapproving friend Charles and manages to win enough money to save himself. But on the way home, he is attacked and robbed of everything. Soon, he is on his way to the Marshalsea.
In 1727, the Marshalsea is not the place Dickens described in Little Dorrit. Although Dickens’ prison was a place of lost hope, in the early 18th century, the Marshalsea is a hell-hole run by a venal and vicious governor, Mr. Acton. Hawkins is astounded to find that it costs more to live in the Marshalsea than it does outside, and if you can’t pay your lodging you will be banished to the horrors of the Common Side, from which bodies are brought out daily. Hawkins has no money at all except what he gets for pawning his mother’s cross and a bit of money from Charles.
To support himself, Hawkins takes on the job of investigating the death of another debtor, Captain Roberts. Although Roberts’ death was deemed a suicide, it was almost certainly a murder, and his ghost is reported as roaming the prison.
Hawkins has taken Roberts’ room, so his roommate is Samuel Fleet, whom all of the prison inhabitants fear. Fleet claims to have been asleep when Roberts’ body was dragged from the room that night. But Hawkins soon observes that Fleet never sleeps.
This novel is terrific. It is thoroughly researched and richly imagined so that both the setting and characters come to life. Hodgson explains at the back of the book that many of the characters are based on actual historical figures. This is Hodgson’s first book, and I’ll be looking for more.