In 1727, a murder occurs in the Marshalsea debtors prison in London, and a recently incarcerated prisoner is promised his freedom if he finds the killer.
This isn't Dickens' Marshalsea from Little Dorrit but an earlier structure, even more loathsome and inhabited by a cast of repellent characters, a number of whom could qualify as the “devil” of the title. Tom Hawkins meets every one of them as he tries to figure out who killed Capt. Roberts a few months earlier. As the book opens, Hawkins is on top of the world, for he’s won enough at gambling to pay off some of his creditors; but that same evening, he’s set upon, robbed and taken to the Marshalsea. There, he meets a cross section of the English classes and finds a strictly capitalist system—he can have pretty much anything he wants as long as he’s able to pay. Of course, the irony is he’s imprisoned for debt and doesn’t have a lot of spending money. He’s immediately taken under the wing of Samuel Fleet, a suspected murderer and translator of French erotica; and he's soon antagonized the aptly named Joseph Cross and the egregious William Acton, two of the jailers. Acton is a vicious sadist who delights in beating a boy who tried to escape, much to the reader's revulsion. The plot develops almost as many intricate turns as there are passages in the Marshalsea as Hawkins crosses the paths of men and women, high and low, who might know something about the death of Capt. Roberts—and about Roberts’ ghost, which now seems to be haunting the prison.
Hodgson’s plotting is clever, perhaps even overly intricate, and the local color hair-raising.