It’s 1728 and Thomas Hawkins is being escorted through the streets of London towards the gallows at Tyburn. Although he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, Tom has been promised a pardon and is sure he will be freed. But as he gets closer and closer to the gallows and the pardon doesn’t come, he begins to lose hope. Could this be the end for Thomas Hawkins?
Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea was one of my favourite books of last year. I loved the setting (an eighteenth century debtors’ prison), I loved the entertaining plot, and I loved learning about life in Georgian London, so I was pleased to find that there was going to be a sequel. If you haven’t read the first book, though, that shouldn’t be a problem because The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins can be read as a ‘standalone historical mystery’, as stated on the book cover. I would still recommend reading the two books in order as there are some minor spoilers in the second one, but it isn’t really necessary.
If you have read The Devil in the Marshalsea you will already have met Thomas Hawkins and will know what he experienced during his time in the notorious Marshalsea Prison. Sadly, as the sequel begins, it seems that Tom has forgotten the lessons he learned in the Marshalsea. He has started to build a new life for himself with Kitty Sparks, bookseller and print shop owner, but this is not enough for Tom and he has returned to his old habits of drinking, gambling and looking for adventure.
It’s not long before things start to spiral out of control again and this time Tom finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Queen Caroline and the king’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, as well as becoming a suspect in a murder investigation. Alternating between Tom’s journey to the gallows and the events leading up to his death sentence, Tom’s story – his ‘last confession’ – gradually unfolds.
This is another great book from Antonia Hodgson and I enjoyed it almost as much as the first. I say ‘almost’ because the fact that The Devil in the Marshalsea was set almost entirely within a debtors’ prison gave the first book a feeling of novelty and originality that this second one doesn’t have. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the setting of this book too, of course. Hodgson’s portrayal of 1720s London is wonderful: a cockfight in a crowded tavern; a gang leader’s lair in a crumbling slum building; the beautifully furnished rooms of St James’s Palace – all of these are described in vivid detail.
Tom Hawkins, as our narrator, is the perfect character to guide us through Georgian London. His lifestyle means he is familiar with the darker side of society, but his family background makes him a gentleman and it is this combination that brings him to the attention of those who hope to use him for their own ends…including the clever, scheming Queen Caroline (a historical figure I’ve never read about until now). Tom is frustrating, flawed and a bit of a rogue, but he’s also a person you can’t help but like. I’m obviously not going to tell you whether or not he does escape the hangman’s noose, but what I will say is that Antonia Hodgson keeps us in suspense until the end. The final chapter gave me hope that there could be a third book in this series – but if you want to know whether Thomas Hawkins will survive that long, you’ll have to read The Last Confession to find out!