The Devil in the Marshalsea – I haven’t enjoyed a novel so much in a long time. As a historical novel, it really worked for me, engrossing me in the period and place. Being a big fan of 18th and 19th century fiction, I was intrigued to take this voyeuristic trip to the Marshalsea Prison and its surroundings. From the first pages I felt I was right there with Tom and Charles and Fleet and … well just about all the characters really. Each one as distinct and clear to me as if I were in the room with them. The smells rose up to my nostrils, I shied from the filth, I recoiled from Acton and sighed with relief whenever Charles appeared… (if that makes me sound like a delicate Georgian miss, well then THAT’s how good this book is at plunging you into the scene!)
It is also a successful coming-of-age story. Tom comes across very clearly as a callow, weak man who arguably got no worse than he deserved initially. As the story unfolds and he is faced with the harsh realities of the Marshalsea and his task to uncover a murderer, we see the man emerge. He faces one difficulty or horror after another, each one like a fork in the road challenging him to decide who he is and what he stands for. By the end we see him becoming aware (more or less; it’s only the first in a series) of who he is and how he wants to live in the world.
As a whodunnit, I found it a rollicking good read that kept me up way too late. Yes, Tom’s suspicion falls first here, then there until his (and the reader’s) head is spinning, but that both keeps the pace exciting and reflects how far out of his depth he is.
In fact, Tom’s very confusion pulls together, into a unified whole, all the varied threads of the historical, whodunnit and bildungsroman elements. Although at the start he sees himself as a ‘man of the world’ and a rake, he is in fact very naive and unprepared for the roughness of the Marshalsea. He is now reeling from the relentless piling on of one shock after another and his moral compass is spinning. From a historical perspective, it feels very believable that a young man of that era would react like this; just a short while ago he was contemplating becoming a country clergyman but more recently has been enthralled by the temptations of a life of debauchery in London. As a whodunnit, this dizziness keeps the pace up and keeps us guessing to the end. The final reveal(s) (trying to avoid spoilers here) juxtaposes Tom’s past and present leaving him questioning his very notions of what he has perceived to be good or bad.
Finally, I’m so glad I didn’t read all the negative reviews before buying this (something I usually do as generally I think the negative reviews are more helpful than the positive ones); had I done so I probably wouldn’t have read it and I’d have thus deprived myself of a treat.
Find The Devil in the Marshalsea on Amazon and at other bookstores.
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