I first met Thomas Hawkins two years ago when I read The Devil in the Marshalsea, a murder mystery set within the confines of a debtors’ prison in eighteenth century London. Last year Antonia Hodgson brought him back again for another adventure in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. And now we’re off to Yorkshire for the third book in the series – A Death at Fountains Abbey. Like the first two, this one could be read as a standalone, but I would still recommend reading all three in the correct order so that you can watch the characters develop throughout the series and avoid spoiling any aspects of the previous mysteries for yourself.
The plot of this third novel is inspired by real historical events and real historical figures, including John Aislabie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who was held responsible for the South Sea Bubble of 1720, a financial disaster in which thousands of people were ruined. It’s to Studley Royal, Aislabie’s estate in Yorkshire, that Tom Hawkins is sent on a mission for Queen Caroline (wife of George II). The Queen wants Tom to investigate some death threats received by the disgraced former Chancellor, while secretly searching for a hidden ledger which lists the names of several prominent public figures who were involved in the South Sea scandal.
On arriving at the estate, Tom immediately discovers a whole host of suspects, all of whom could have reasons for wanting Aislabie dead. To complicate things further, a young woman has recently arrived at Studley claiming that she is Aislabie’s long-lost daughter, believed to have been killed in a fire at his London home many years earlier. With the help of his lover Kitty (posing as his wife for the sake of appearances) and his young ward, Sam Fleet, Tom begins to investigate both the death threats and the whereabouts of the ledger, a search that will take him all over Studley Royal and neighbouring Fountains Abbey.
Tom Hawkins is a wonderful character; while he’s a bit of a scoundrel – and admits to being a bit of a scoundrel – he’s a decent person at heart and I can’t help liking him. His relationship with Kitty moves forward in this book and we also see a lot of Sam Fleet, the London gang leader’s son whom Tom is trying to educate and turn into a gentleman. I enjoyed the brief insights we are given into Sam’s own thoughts and feelings, showing how desperately he wants to feel valued and loved – and thankfully both Tom and Kitty are beginning to see the good in him. There are some great secondary characters in this novel too, many based on real people.
As for the mystery itself, it’s quite a good one. There were plenty of clues from the start, but it would have been difficult to put them together correctly without knowing certain facts which are withheld until much later in the novel. I certainly wasn’t able to work out what was going on before the truth was revealed.
I enjoyed this book, but it does feel slightly different from the first two Thomas Hawkins novels. The London prisons, slums and taverns which provided the setting for The Devil in the Marshalsea and The Last Confession have been replaced here by the fresh air and open spaces of the Yorkshire countryside. I have visited Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey twice (they are now National Trust properties) and this really added to the experience of reading the book as I could clearly picture the ruined abbey, the water gardens, the follies and the statues. I’m now hoping there will be a fourth book in the series and wondering where Tom’s adventures will take him next.
By the way, if you were expecting to see my monthly Historical Musings post today, I promise it will be coming soon!