Ah, the hot weather arrives and with it dreams of beaches, holidays and leisure. Leave the cares and concerns of work and bury yourself in some escapist literature.
And escape is the operative word where Tom Hawkins is concerned. His author, Antonia Hodgson knows how to wrap a rattling good tale around the fragments of history. In Tom’s day, we are in Georgian England. In his first adventure The Devil in Marshalsea, we meet Tom, a newly arrived inmate of the infamous debtors’ prison and in the same breath we meet many more characters that will haunt the pages of two other novels: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins and A Death at Fountains Abbey.
Building a veritable ladder of escapades, in which Tom has some very narrow escapes, Ms Hodgson selects her mise en scene from a few real characters, found in archives of contemporary letters and diaries and cunningly weaves a web of part truth and part fantasy, always at the end of the book, explaining who is who. Which of the characters is based on fact, gleaned say from a letter or diary, or from a bill of sale or from the domestic accounts of a genuine household or indeed, from the royal household, for even Queen Caroline makes a regular appearance, often the instigator of the latest scrape – it was well known that she was much given to intrigue and mischief.
The real characters may never have encountered Tom Hawkins (for he is fiction), but they might well have been a part of the adventure that he has in each of the books. The locations and the national events that shape his story are grounded in fact, it is the detail of the adventure that departs from history.
Another series that might equally engage you is that of Westerman and Crowther, these two characters meet in unfortunate circumstances when a body is found in woods on Harriet Westerman’s estate and she calls upon the help of a local anatomist, eccentric and reclusive, but known for his forensic skills: Gabriel Crowther is an unwilling but invaluable assistant in the first of many adventures from the pen of Imogen Robertson (can one still say “from the pen of”?).
Never mind, these are also skilfully set in an England very different from our own. Some time between 1750 and 1783, mayhem, murder and conspiracies seem to lurk behind every move that Westerman makes, either in her country estate or in London. This is still Georgian England, but spanning the reigns of both George II and George III, European courts were filled with intrigue and suspicion; life in England was is a state of flux; France was teetering upon the advent of a national catastrophe.
There are five books so far in this series. Beginning with Instruments of Darkness and ending, at present with Circle of Shadows the reader is drawn inexorably through the twists and turns of each investigation, once again at the end of each novel Ms Robertson gives us the actual events or ideas that she has used to people her story.
The historical background lies lightly upon these stories, but the locations once again bring us to the very mud, ugliness and extravagance of Georgian society: while the privileged and wealthy dance away the night, the less fortunate struggle for survival.
And soon it will be time to read the Man Booker Longlist…