I bought this book in W H Smith at Manchester Airport before a three week trip to Saudi Arabia and South Africa. I didn’t much like the cover but I do like historical crime fiction, the book had a “Buy one, get one half price” sticker and I had already picked up Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood which I knew I would enjoy (and I did). I finished The Devil in the Marshalsea half an hour ago sitting on the terrace at the Southern Sun Montecasino in Johannesburg on a warm and sunny Spring Saturday morning, glad that I had not been put off by the cover.
While I was reading it and thinking about a review I wavered—three stars? Four? Five? Three stars means: “It’s a good book and I enjoyed it”—but it was more than that. Five stars? Well, almost—but the characters, though convincing, never really emerge on the page into three rounded dimensions. I settled on 4½ stars and rounded down to four.
The historical research is excellent, the background is so fully realised that you can smell the stench, feel the fear, taste the food and get drunk on the punch. It’s well paced. The secret, when it is finally unlocked, convinces. Motivations are believable. Antonia Hodgson is a very good writer; when she masters rounded characterisation (and she will—I hope by her next book, which nothing save death can prevent me from reading) she will take her place among our finest historical authors.
When you get to my age it’s inevitable that you sometimes wonder: If I get there, what will Heaven be like? Well, now I know. Heaven will be like Sunday lunch at Punchinello’s at The Southern Sun Montecasino in Johannesburg.
And, if it isn’t, I think I don’t want to go there.