The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson

It’s been a four-year wait but The Silver Collar, the fourth book in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Thomas Hawkins series, is here at last. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting ‘Half-Hanged’ Hawkins and Kitty Sparks, this book does work as a standalone, but I would recommend going back to the beginning and starting with The Devil in the Marshalsea.

The Silver Collar is set in 1728. After their adventures in Yorkshire in the previous novel, Tom and Kitty are back in London running Kitty’s bookshop, The Cocked Pistol – ‘an establishment of such ill repute that a brief glance through its window could tarnish the soul‘. The couple still aren’t married and their relationship is still affectionate but stormy – and there are those who seem to want to drive them apart, such as Sir John Gonson, Tom’s old enemy, and the sinister Lady Vanhook.

When Tom is attacked in the street one day by men who appear to be intent on killing him, he is saved only by the intervention of his young ward Sam Fleet, son of an infamous underworld villain. With Sam’s help, Tom begins to investigate, determined to find out who was behind the attack, but while he is preoccupied, Kitty is facing problems of her own and has become reacquainted with a very unwelcome face from her past.

The Silver Collar also introduces another intriguing character by the name of Jeremiah Patience. Jeremiah’s story unfolds in the middle of the book, incorporating escaped slaves, a plantation in Antigua and a little girl forced to wear a silver collar – this was interesting, sensitively written and certainly very topical, but I felt it was a bit too similar to other storylines I’ve been coming across in historical fiction recently. I did like Jeremiah, though, and had a lot of sympathy for his situation.

It was also lovely to meet Tom and Kitty again after such a long wait. Tom, who narrates most of the novel in the first person, is such a great character – a lovable rogue who is always trying his best to reform himself but never quite managing it. In this book, though, his associations with other disreputable figures such as Sam Fleet and his mother Gabriela prove to be very helpful! Kitty is another strong character; I’ve enjoyed getting to know her over the course of the four books and I keep forgetting how young she still is. I didn’t think the parts of the book written from her perspective worked as well as Tom’s, though; they are written in the second person, which always feels a bit strange, I think.

This book is less of a mystery novel than the previous one (A Death at Fountains Abbey); historical thriller is probably a better description. However, we do see Tom keen to put the mystery-solving skills he gained in Yorkshire to good use by establishing a sort of Georgian-style detective agency. Sadly, he becomes too distracted by his own problems to spend much time worrying about other people’s, but maybe this is something that will be returned to in a future book.

I’ve enjoyed all four books in this series, including this one, but I still think The Devil in the Marshalsea was the best. Such a high standard was set with that book, it was always going to be hard for the others to live up to it. They are all entertaining reads, though, and I will look forward to a fifth book and finding out what the future has in store for Tom and his friends.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

a-death-at-fountains-abbey 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!

My Commonplace Book: August 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)

~

“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)

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I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)

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Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)

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It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

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It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)

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Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

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“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)

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It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)

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I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)

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louisedelavalliere

“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

~

Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)

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And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)

~

Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)

~

Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)

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Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins 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!

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

The Devil in the Marshalsea This is a murder mystery with a difference, being set almost entirely within the confines of an eighteenth century debtors’ prison. Our narrator, Tom Hawkins, is a young man who has rebelled against his clergyman father’s plans for his future and is enjoying himself in London, spending all his money on drinking and gambling. After a big win at the card tables one night, Tom is attacked on his way home and his winnings are stolen, leaving him unable to pay his debts. Taken to the notorious Marshalsea Prison, he is horrified to discover that the last occupant of his cell, Captain Roberts, was murdered. The killer has never been caught, but Tom’s new roommate, the charismatic and mysterious Samuel Fleet, is the man most people believe to be the murderer.

The Marshalea is privately run for profit, so it’s not surprising that the prison governors want the killer identified as quickly as possible to avoid any further scandal. Told that his only chance of being released depends on whether or not he can solve the mystery of Roberts’ death, Tom agrees to investigate. Unsure who can be trusted and beginning to wonder whether such things as truth and justice even exist in a place as corrupt as the Marshalsea, Tom eventually uncovers a web of betrayal and deception on a scale he could never have imagined.

Other authors have written about the Marshalsea, most famously Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, but Dickens’ Marshalsea was a newer building on a site further down the road; set in 1727, Antonia Hodgson’s novel refers to the original prison. Not knowing anything at all about the Marshalsea, this was quite an eye-opening book for me. I was aware that prisoners were often able to offer bribes in return for better living conditions and privileges, but I hadn’t realised there was such a great disparity between the fate of those who could afford to pay and those who couldn’t.

The prison was divided into two sections. The prisoners who had some money to spend or who had influential friends, lived on the Master’s Side, which was almost like a complete town in itself, with coffee houses, bars, restaurants and even a barber. They had the freedom to move around and in some cases were even given permission to go out into London during the day. For the poor people on the Common Side, things were much worse. Crammed into tiny cells and suffering from starvation, disease and overcrowding, they died at a rate of up to twelve a day. Tom Hawkins, whose best friend happens to work for Sir Philip Meadows, Knight Marshal of the Marshalsea, is lucky enough to find himself on the Master’s Side but with the knowledge that if his luck should run out, he could find himself thrown into the Common Side to meet his death with the others.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted as there are some horrible descriptions of sickness, torture and brutality, not to mention the dirty, squalid conditions the unfortunate inmates of the Common Side were forced to endure. Knowing that this was an experience many people really did have to go through makes it even more horrific. Despite this, I found The Devil in the Marshalsea very entertaining and fun to read. The book is filled with larger than life characters and I was surprised to find, when I read the notes at the end of the book, that many of these people really existed and were mentioned in the diary of John Grano, a debtor who spent a year in the prison from 1728-1729.

As a mystery novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea kept me guessing right until the end. I did not work out who the murderer was and even after the truth was revealed there were still more plot twists and revelations to come. As a work of historical fiction it’s equally impressive; I loved the portrayal of eighteenth century London both inside and outside the Marshalsea. I was so pleased to find that there’s going to be a sequel to this book and I’m already looking forward to meeting Tom Hawkins again!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review