I bought this book – an historic novel – in a Waterstones bookstore because I had nothing to read at that moment and it looked interesting. Its author is Antonia Hodgson who grew up in Derby and studied English at the University of Leeds. Her first novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, won the 2014 Historical Dagger Award. Ms Hodgson lives in London, where she is an editor.
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is set in a rather down-market section of Georgian London. Its principal character, Thomas Hawkins is a ‘gentleman’ who killed a man in self-defense in prison, and throughout the story is under threat of being hung for murder. There are several intertwining plots. One involves a rather loathsome neighbour who is a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (a pathological moralist) and whose own morals permit him to consort with prostitutes and to beat his children. The neighbour is suddenly dead. Who killed him? Thomas, one of the children, the apprentice, the son of a notorious gang? Another plot involves King George’ mistress who is also a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte. This Henrietta Howard (who was a real person) is a pawn in the struggle of her very evil, estranged husband to extort money from the king. The queen, also a real person, is caught in the middle and manages to capture Thomas as her rook to defeat the black knight, Charles Howard. To keep things going, there is Kitty, the pretty and libidinous girlfriend of Thomas.
There is plenty of action in this rather engaging tale which moves along at a frenetic pace with many twists and turns along the way. The characters are well-developed and likable or despicable; the dialogue is terse and credible. The Covent Garden area of London is well described in physical and moral terms, but it was difficult to picture oneself in the setting. It is not just a familiarity with the Covent Garden of today that blocked – to some extent – the credibility of the scene; it was more that at a feeling level one is somewhat remote. Having said this, one has to admire the depth of Ms Hodgson’s research into the times, the issues and the characters. There are plenty of surprises in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – they certainly keep the reader engaged – but sometimes the events seemed a little too contrived. For example, the events around the ambush of Henrietta’s carriage by her husband, and the conclusion where Thomas is sent on a new mission by the queen. The cockfight and the duel of the female gladiators, while authentic and interesting, added little to the story line.
For those who like a historical novel with an anchor in truth, one with many fascinating twists and turns, with important, stand-out characters, and a good helping of mystery, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is the novel for you!