Dublin, 1841. On a cold December morning, a small boy is enticed away from his mother and his throat savagely cut. This could be just one more small, sad death in a city riven by poverty, inequality and political unrest, but this killing causes a public outcry. For it appears the culprit – a feckless student named John Delahunt – is also an informant and in the pay of the authorities at Dublin Castle. And strangely, this young man seems neither to regret what he did nor fear his punishment. Indeed, as he awaits the hangman in his cell in Kilmainham Gaol, John Delahunt decides to tell his story in this, his final, deeply unsettling statement . . .
Based on true events that convulsed Victorian Ireland, The Convictions of John Delahunt is the tragic tale of a man who betrays his family, his friends, his society and, ultimately, himself. Set amidst Dublin’s taverns, tenements, courtrooms and alleyways and with a rich, Dickensian cast of characters, this compelling, at times darkly humorous, novel brilliantly evokes a time and a place, and introduces a remarkable new literary voice.
Dark, gloomy, and oppressive, the Victorian Dublin we’re presented with in The Convictions of John Delahunt is eerily like Dickensian London and yet quite different. In his debut novel Andrew Hughes takes us to this harsh, but beautiful city to tell us the tale of the murderer John Delahunt. A figure of historical record with documented crimes, Delahunt is the beating heart of this tale, yet it’s not just his tale. It’s also a look at how the Dublin police force functioned at the time and it’s a love story and an unexpected one at that.
When we meet John Delahunt he’s awaiting his execution in Kilmainham prison and he is allowed to write down his final testimony. He decides to do so and tell his entire story. So we zip back to his time as a rather feckless student of natural philosophy and learn about the evening that set the events in motion that end up with him in this cell awaiting his death. And it is rather unnerving how one incident can set of this cascade of events. And the reader must wonder whether there isn’t more to John’s development than this moment in time. Getting drawn into the nefarious goings-on in the Castle doesn’t truly excuse some of the actions John takes, as they don’t seem out of character for him and I’d expected many people in the same situation didn’t make that choice.
John also isn’t a very likeable or even sympathetic character, yet he’s compelling and I wanted to know how he got where he was when we met him, so I kept reading even if I didn’t actually like him. John is indolent, selfish and self-absorbed. He also came across as callous and cruel. There were a few story lines that did make him somewhat more sympathetic, such as his recounting of his childhood and how his father changed after his mother’s death and of course his relationship with Helen. At first I thought his involvement with Helen was one of convenience and strategy as he seemed rather indifferent to her, but it is only in the latter half of his narrative that his true feelings for her come to the fore. And I have to say as his marriage came apart at the seams I did feel sorry for him.
Helen was quite interesting as well. On the one hand she’s the demure daughter of a prosperous Dublin society family, hemmed in by rules and zealously watched over by a governess. On the other she’s strong-willed and adventurous, setting her cap at John and going after him as well, even suggesting that they elope when John doesn’t get her father’s consent to marry her. Similarly, she’s an active participant in John work for the Castle, helping him make lists of acquaintances and thinking off information to provide the Castle on them. Her story broke my heart and while her sudden return to a virtuous patrician’s daughter was jarring, I also felt glad she was able to return to her family and with a chance at re-entering society and building a happier life for herself.
Hughes’ portrayal of Castle practices and the way they collect and hoard information on citizens and put that information to use is chilling. It rather reminded me of the argument used in the whole NSA discussion, that even if you’ve done nothing wrong you don’t want people to keep all this information on you, because it’s all about how that information is interpreted and how an interpretation can be used against you. It was also frightening how quickly and far John went down the rabbit hole once the agents at the Castle got their hooks in him. They are corrupt and unscrupulous and to satisfy their demands, John commits increasingly baser and crueller acts though he doesn’t seem to suffer huge pangs of conscience over it.
Due to the nature of the narrative – a first-person confession – at times the reader has to wonder about its reliability. Not only the usual caveats of a first-person limited narration apply, but in addition we know John isn’t the most trustworthy person, so how much faith should we place in his veracity? This kept going through my mind throughout the book, especially as there are several scenes were John asks to see Sibthorpe, the chief intelligencer, and gets told that there is no such person. In the end though, even if Delahunt twists some things to put himself in a better light, I do think his narration is largely reliable. The fact that he seems to feel a need for honesty in his last hours and the purpose he puts his testimony to argue in his favour.
The Convictions of John Delahunt is a fascinating story, compellingly written, featuring a protagonist who would have been called grimdark had he been the star of a fantasy novel. Andrew Hughes paints his story with swift, sure strokes and manages to create a vivid picture of Victorian Dublin complete with a murky atmosphere that matches that of the time’s penny dreadfuls. I very much enjoyed Hughes’ debut, it was a rich and gripping reading experience. If this is his first novel, I can’t wait to see where he goes in the future. The Convictions of John Delahunt comes highly recommended.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.