Book Review: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

Thomas Hawkins is on his way to Tyburn to be hanged as a murderer. He is anticipating a royal pardon, so is not overly concerned - at first, though the experience is far from pleasant. As he travels from Newgate Prison through the streets of Georgian London, he narrates what has brought him to this sorry plight. 

Thomas and his love, Kitty Sparks, are happily running a book shop, selling legal and illegal publications, and dealing with weekly visits from the local magistrate. However, Thomas is growing bored with domesticity and craves excitement. He is slowly returning to his old ways. The same ones that saw him thrown into debtors' prison not so long ago.

He mentions to James Fleet, the notorious leader of one of London's street gangs and the father of Sam, who Thomas is teaching to be a gentleman, that he's looking for adventure. Subsequently, a summons from Queen Caroline brings him more excitement than he cares for as he becomes involved in the unhappy marriage of the King's mistress, Henrietta Howard, and her husband. To add to Thomas' woes, his next-door neighbour, Joseph Burden, is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect. Assisted by Kitty and Sam, Thomas tries to prove his innocence, but unfortunately his very public arguments with his neighbour, his way of life and a rumour circulating that he has killed before, work against him and he is eventually arrested for the crime.

I eagerly awaited the return of Thomas Hawkins after following his exploits in The Devil in the Marshalsea, Antonia Hodgson's debut novel and the first in the series. It was worth the wait. What's more reading the first book is not a prerequisite to enjoying and following this sequel as there is enough of Thomas' back story woven into the narrative to explain his present situation.

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins commences a few months after Thomas' release from the Marshalsea and introduces a colourful mix of new characters and others we have met before. Unlike The Devil in the Marshalsea, where most of the action is confined to the one place, Thomas' investigations and his gentlemanly pursuits lead him all over London, from the violent Georgian underworld to the opulence of St. James' Palace.

Trouble dogs Thomas' every move as he tries to extricate himself from the mess he's in. Unfortunately his actions are often misconstrued. For all his worldly experiences, he is still quite naive, a trait that makes him such a lovable rogue.

There are a number of suspects for Burden's murder, but Thomas is unable to link any of them to the crime and, another of his traits, a sense of honour, stops him laying the blame on anyone without having  indisputable evidence. Like Thomas, I had no real idea who the culprit was, though I had my suspicions.

I enjoyed reading Thomas' trial transcript presented as an authentic 18th century publication. Kitty's evidence was particularly moving and amusing in equal amounts. Throughout the novel Kitty's defence of Thomas is fierce, which makes for some very entertaining moments and some poignant ones.

Thomas' narration is interspersed with scenes of his progress from Newgate to Tyburn. These are well done and the switch in perspective adds extra suspense. As the scenery changes en route, these sketches also show Thomas' range of emotions. He still hopes for a pardon, but the closer he gets to Tyburn, the less confident of receiving one he becomes.

I loved everything about this novel. It is fast paced with many plot twists, an assortment of characters, fictional and lesser known historical figures, and a  great setting for a protagonist such as Thomas Hawkins. Once again Antonia Hodgson succeeds in bringing the Georgian world he inhabits to life with her vivid descriptions and attention to detail. I can still hear the tolling of the church bell and the jeering of the crowds as Thomas makes his way to Tyburn. His speech from the gallows, though not what the crowd wants to hear, is theatrical and honest, with a touch of humour, which makes Thomas Hawkins such an endearing character. Does he get his pardon? Now that would be telling ...

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