This novel marks the debut of the latest luminary in 18th century crime, Tom Hawkins.
The son of a country clergyman, and expected to become his curate, Tom has defied his father and is eking out a precarious life in the gambling dens and whorehouses of Hogarthian London. Finding himself bereft of cash for the umpteenth time, he approaches his friend Charles, a fellow theological student who has followed the straight and narrow and is now an ordained clergyman working for Sir Philip Meadows, Knight Marshal of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison. Charles agrees to bail him out once more, which he says will clean him out too. Charles reluctantly accompanies Tom on a night's gambling spree. Amazingly Tom wins enough money to clear all his debts.
Charles leaves Tom to make his own way home, who is set upon by thieves, beaten up and relieved of all his winnings. He is subsequently arrested and thrown into the Marshalsea Prison., which is divided into the Park Side, for those that can pay their way, and the Common Side for the destitute. To be sent to the Common Side is a fate worse than death.
As Tom is penniless once more, he sends for Charles, who explains that he is in the same state, but suggests that if Tom can solve the appalling murder of a Captain Roberts carried out recently in the prison, he will earn the gratitude of Sir Philip Meadows and be released as a reward. Tom reluctantly agrees, little realising that he is about to enter Hell. In the Park Side, everything is charged for at extortionate prices, and anyone falling behind on payments can be thrown into the Common Side.
Tom is befriended by Samuel Fleet, a sinister denizen of the Marshalsea, who is feared and loathed by most of the debtors. He is also strongly suspected of being the perpetrator of the murder. The ghost of Captain Roberts has been seen on several occasions in the courtyard of the Park Side.
The daily life and the inhabitants of the Marshalsea are portrayed in the most colourful manner, most of them being based on historical fact. It has to be said that Tom Hawkins is an extremely inept investigator – every theory he comes up with is rapidly proved to be wrong and he suffers torture and unbelievable cruelty, with several miraculous escapes from a horrible death. The plot moves at a lively pace, with more twists than a corkscrew.
I have no doubt that this book will be the first in a highly successful series, during which Tom will learn from his many mistakes. I enjoyed it enormously.