Antonia Hodgson - The Devil in the Marshalsea

London 1727: after failing to follow in his father's footsteps as a country cleric, Tom Hawkins leads a carefree life as a bachelor-about-town, drinking, gambling and whoring. When his debts finally catch up with him and the bailiffs are hot on his heels, he risks everything on one last gamble - and wins. But on his way home he is lured into a trap, beaten up and robbed.

The bailiff who takes him to the Marshalsea, the notorious debtors' prison in Southwark, appears somewhat kinder than most, and confides in Tom that his friend Captain Roberts was recently found hanged there, and that he suspects the prison governor of a cover-up. He warns Tom about the conditions in the Marshalsea and gives him a few coins in return for the young man's promise to find out the truth about his friend's murder. Little does Tom know that he needs to solve the crime in order to save his own life...

As the prison gates shut behind him, Tom realises that no warnings could have prepared him for the horrors that await him: even though his meagre funds allow him to stay on the Master's Side for a while, where prisoners are free to move around the grounds during the day and spend their money in the tap room, conditions are awful, not helped by the undercurrent of violence, bullying and extortion at the hands of the guards and the governor himself: only hours after his arrival, Tom witnesses the latter beating a young boy to death.

But if life is cheap on the Master's Side, it counts for nothing on the Common Side, divided from Tom's new world by a high wall. On his first night he is horrified by the cries for mercy as the prisoners are herded back into their cramped cells where they are left overnight without access to water, food or fresh air, and every morning the bodies are dragged out. Unless Tom can somehow find a way to make money for his rent, he too will end up there.

Tom is perturbed to learn that Captain Anderson was killed in the very room he now shares with the mercurial and enigmatic Fleet - and that Fleet claims to have slept through the whole thing although he now seems to be awake twenty-four hours. And thus begins a race against time to find the murderer...

The Devil in the Marshalsea is a truly stunning debut, at times very dark and gritty, but never less than riveting, tightly plotted and brimming with dramatic tension. Tom is wonderfully portrayed as the young scoundrel who is suddenly forced to grow up when thrown into the hell that is the Marshalsea - and as he loses some of his innocence he also rediscovers some of those values he previously scorned: he is now not only trying to save his own skin but determined to do right by the victims of the prison.

The author is particularly good at evoking the horrible smells, sounds and sights of the Marshalsea, to the point where they virtually leap of the page; rarely have I read such harrowing descriptions of a setting: the way in which Hodgson captures this hellish world is brilliantly haunting. That is not to say that the novel is depressing however - it is far too entertaining for that, much helped by the rich cast of colourful characters. Not to be missed.