Review 1635: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

This sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea is lots of fun. The opening of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins finds our reluctant, roguish protagonist on the way to the gallows. There have been rumors in the neighborhood that he murdered a man in the Borough, but this isn’t the crime he’s been found guilty of.

The story begins with Tom in the street at night on the way home from his usual carouse. He hears the cry of “Thief” from inside the house of his neighbor, Mr. Burden, but when he tries to help, the neighbor becomes abusive. It is Mr. Burden who has been spreading the rumors about Tom.

When Mr. Gonson, the magistrate, comes to investigate the supposed crime, Tom finds that Mr. Burden is accusing Sam Fleet, the nephew of Samuel Fleet, Tom’s friend who was murdered in the Marshalsea in the previous novel, a boy that Tom is supposed to be teaching to be a gentleman. Later, Tom, in a drunken rage, hammers on the Burdens’ door and threatens Burden’s life.

Tip: If you’re in a drunken rage, never threaten anyone’s life. The next night, of course, Burden is murdered, which Tom and his girlfriend Kitty discover when they find Burden’s maid Alice in their house covered with blood. She has come through a secret passage into their house after finding her employer dead. Tom knows that if the authorities find the passage, which he didn’t know about, they’ll assume he is the murderer. The magistrate arrests him anyway, upon no evidence, but then must release him.

Tom also finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress. He undertakes a job, hired by Sam’s father James Fleet, the king of the London underworld, to meet a lady in the park. The lady is Henrietta Howard, whom he finds being attacked by her own husband, Charles. Tom is hired by Queen Caroline to try to find some dark secret to put pressure on Howard, who is trying to blackmail King George by threatening to force Mrs. Howard to return to him.

This novel is atmospheric of Georgian England, especially the nasty places, and full of adventure. It is also quite suspenseful.

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Day 692: The Devil in the Marshalsea

Cover for The Devil in the MarshalseaTom 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 DorritAlthough 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.

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