A quasi-picaresque novel about an 18th-century gentleman/rogue convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and his efforts to clear his name and track down the killer.
The novel opens with Thomas Hawkins on the way to the gallows, so much of the novel is told in flashback. Hawkins is a bit of a rake and a bit of a scoundrel who admits that he likes to take risks but who also has a moral streak that makes him highly loyal to and protective of his mistress, Kitty Sparks. But when carpenter Joseph Burden—a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners with an unsavory past—is murdered, Hawkins is considered a prime suspect, for Burden was supposed to testify against him for another murder Hawkins didn’t commit. After a night in jail, Hawkins is released through the influence of the City Marshal and is put in charge of searching for the real culprit. Because suspects are rife, the story becomes something of a whodunit and takes on the flavor of a good mystery. Suspects include Burden’s children, Judith and Stephen; his apprentice, Ned Weaver, who bears a great secret; his housekeeper, Alice, whom Burden was tupping; and Sam, nephew of a notorious gang leader and Hawkins' protégé. Through a series of elaborate narrative convolutions, Hawkins winds up being arrested, accused, convicted, and condemned for the crime (hence the long trek to the gallows with which the novel begins). While Hawkins narrates much of the novel—and we know he’s innocent—at times the story shifts to a third-person account that focuses on his slow movement to the gallows. And Hodgson (editor-in-chief of Little, Brown U.K.) even introduces a clever narrative strategy of transcribing a hypothetical record of Hawkins’ trial. One of Hawkins’ problems is that he’s almost too moral in a world that thrives on immorality and betrayal. As gang leader James Fleet explains to him, "Can’t afford honour in this world, Hawkins. It’ll kill you faster than the plague." This tension between goodness and "the way of the world” elevates the novel and gives it moral complexity.
Chock full of intrigue, heroism, wickedness…and even some redemption. A fun historical read.