The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9780544639683_p0_v3_s192x300After reading Laura Holson’s New York Times article (..Beefcake Sells…), describing the motivation behind the covers of romance novels, the cover of Antonia Hodgson’s latest book – The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – didn’t seem right.  Noted, the book is historical fiction as Hodgson goes to great lengths to document in her afterword, but the hero, Tom, is clearly ripped and lusty.  His bare chest on the cover might attract more readers, and the ripping bodice shenanigans in this story rival those in Catherine Coulter’s Regency romances.

Tom Hawkins returns from his debut in The Devil in the Marshalsea (see my review below) with a few familiar characters introduced in Hodgson’s first swashbuckling romance thriller.  This story has Tom on his way to be hanged for killing his neighbor, Joseph Burden, a horrible bully who tortures his children and rapes his housekeeper, while he is posing as a member of the “Society for the Reformation of Manners,” an eighteenth century group set up as a watchdog for English morals.  Who really killed Joseph Burden becomes a subplot in a tale of intrigue involving Queen Caroline and her husband’s mistress, Henrietta Howard.

According to Hodgson’s research, Howard’s husband was blackmailing the king to keep his mistress a secret.  When the king refused to pay, Howard threatened the queen, and eventually, struck a bargain.  Hodgson uses this obscure historical fact to weave a story around our hero, the rakish Tom Hawkins.  Asked to perform a favor for James Fleet, the “captain of the most powerful gang of thieves in St Giles,” Hawkins finds himself involved with Queen Caroline, who hires him to dispose of the troublesome husband of her lady-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard.   Things do not go according to plan, and Hawkins is telling his tale in his cell before he goes to the gallows – hoping for a last minute pardon from the Queen.  

The adventure is fast and furious, with historically correct descriptions of court intrigue, cock-fighting, brothels, executions, and female gladiators.

Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea 

The Devil in the Marshalsea

9780544176676_p0_v8_s260x420Finding Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea in Heathrow terminal was the bonus to my recent trip.  This historical thriller has elements of Zafon’s swashbuckling Prisoner of Heaven and Charles Dickens’ attention to detail, with characters who actually lived and survived the horrors of  the eighteenth century debtors’ prison in England.  The hero, a handsome rake who has strayed from his family’s upstanding and wealthy status, finds himself in debt from gambling, and confined to the debtors’ prison in the Marshalsea.  The prison is more of a city community with the poor suffering horrible conditions (chained to dead bodies for punishment the least of them) and the rich who can afford patrons with money to buy daily necessities and comforts enjoying a better, yet still confined, existence.  All are in prison, nevertheless, and at the mercy of the turnkey (warden).

Hodgson’s research brings the time and place to life, creating a murder mystery and thriller as Tom Hawkins, our handsome hero “with great calves” finds himself confined within the infamous debtors’ prison as the roommate to the “devil,” Mr. Fleet, a well-connected former spy, who supposedly killed his former roommate, Mr. Roberts, who now roams the halls as a ghost.  Tom enters into a pact to prove how and who killed Roberts, before he becomes the next victim.  The story twists and turns, maintaining the suspense, while revealing horrors and conditions that are based on real happenings and people. Even the ghost is based on historical data.

Hard to believe conditions were so miserable, yet Hodgson proves her research in an afterward.  The book reads like a thriller, while educating the reader.  Perhaps most pointedly, Hodgson manages to convey, through the connivance and betrayals, that people back then were the same as some today.

As an added bonus, the book offers an invitation to a book club – The Richard and Judy Thornton Book Club – through WHSmith, with lists of books and discussions.  I found some enticing titles.