The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins | Antonia Hodgson | 2015, Pb 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1728 and Thomas Hawkins is in trouble again. Having narrowly escaped in one piece from Marshalsea Prison, he’s now about to have his neck stretched. Dragged out of Newgate Prison on a cart for his final journey, a cart that obligingly stops at an inn to allow the doomed man one last tipple, Tom is to be hung for murder. As the gallows get nearer and the crowd grows ever more enthusiastic and cheery, Tom spends his time wondering how he came to find himself in such a pretty mess. It’s a tale worth hearing, although it appears it may have an abrupt end.
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins continues the story of our eponymous hero begun with the outstanding The Devil in the Marshalsea. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this new one but it adds considerably to the tale to see the development of characters to whom we’ve grown attached, most especially Tom himself but also his long-suffering love Kitty. Other people come and go through both the novels, there are plenty of familiar names, but these are more than matched by a whole new set of characters that make The Last Confession a distinct book of its own. So, in other words, you don’t need to have read Marshalsea first, but you should read it. The Last Confession does contain some spoilers for its predecessor but there are none here.
Not much has changed for Tom. He’s still a gambler, a bit of a rake and a young man who can’t stand still. Life is good for him. He and Kitty have some money, they’ve set up home together – as well as a pornography printing shop, which is doing very well – and ‘marriage’ is a concept that has begun to shimmer above the horizon, admittedly still a little out of reach. But Tom can’t help feeling a little bored and he’s all too ready to grasp the chance to do some meddling, most particularly as the eyes and ears of one of London’s most feared and violent gang lords (to whom Tom has a faint connection). Not satisfied with that, he also finds himself helping out none other than the Queen, whose lady in waiting has got herself into a tight spot as a direct result of being the King’s mistress. It’s a tangled – painfully high profile – affair to be sure. Stakes are high and blood will be spilt, a fear that comes to fruition when Tom’s neighbour is found murdered in his bed. In this world coincidences don’t exist. Which is a shame because Tom can be found at the heart of it all. Kitty is not amused.
As with The Devil in the Marshalsea, Antonia Hodgson richly evokes the colour, smells and squalour of London’s stews and rookeries, as well as the glamour and perfume of the drawing rooms and parlours of the wealthy. We’re immersed in a place of coffee bars, seedy shops and printing houses, police dungeons and prisons. We have all classes here from the very lowest, barefoot in the stinking alleys, to those closest to the crown, where corruption is every bit as ripe as it is in the streets. It is fantastically drawn, the prose is light with a strong authentic feel, this London seems very truly to be early 18th century, alien and exotic and yet still familiar with its placenames and landmarks that survive today.
The setting, location and prose might be wonderful but so too are the plot and characters. The Last Confession has a great plot that I would argue even outdoes the plot of Marshalsea. Now that we know Tom better the storyline is much less about him, crucial though he is to its development. This is a marvellously tangled web of secrets and lies and murder and sin. If only Tom would rise above it all. If only he hadn’t become involved in the first place. But we know Thomas Hawkins very well, he’s so beautifully drawn after all, and we know he can’t help himself.
Tom and Kitty are such fabulous, friendly characters and they’re a lot of fun when they’re together. There is enormous tenderness and love – not that they can always see it – and both are willing to sacrifice everything for the other. It’s a pleasure to spend time with these two. They both have faults, especially Tom who seems to accrue extra faults by the day, but that doesn’t stop us caring for them. It’s hard not to worry about them when you see the forces working against them. There are some truly terrible Dickensian villains in this novel. The crimes are brutal and violent, the terror is real. This is a novel to keep you on the edge of your seat, your fears well fuelled.
I’m not a big reader of historical fiction set during the Georgian period. It’s never been a time that interested me but Antonia Hodgson challenges all of that. Not only does she make me feel thoroughly immersed in the period but she also makes me want to find out more about it. She is to be congratulated for The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. The Devil in the Marshalsea is a superb novel that all fans of historical fiction should read and enjoy but The Last Confession is even better! It is a tremendous achievement. Antonia Hodgson is a fine writer indeed and will become, I sense, an increasingly significant one.