The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes is a historical thriller set in 1840s Dublin about a man who slowly begins to betray everything and everyone close to him (available June 15, 2015).
What a fascinating book. It starts out fairly slowly, in your standard “I’m a criminal looking back at my sordid history” fashion, but then unfolds into a mesmerizing, utterly convincing, utterly sympathetic tale of life in Victorian Dublin that serves as a hideous reminder of how desperate day-to-day existence used to be for the average citizen even not so long ago.
Our narrator, John Delahunt, is a somewhat indifferent student at Trinity College Dublin. His life changes when he and a friend, Arthur Stokes, go drinking with several rebellious young undergraduates, whose rowdiness soon attracts the attention of a passing policeman. A fracas ensues, the policeman is permanently deafened… and Delahunt comes to the attention of the Castle, the clandestine governmental security organization that maintains a network of spies and informants throughout the city.
Soon Delahunt becomes one of these informants, and just as quickly finds himself attracted to Arthur’s younger sister, Helen. Though their courtship and elopement and subsequent genteel impoverishment could easily be the stuff drippy romances are made of, Delahunt’s descriptions of their relationship are unsettlingly honest, as in this passage, where he saves the bulky manuscript Helen had been working on from the flames she tried to consign them to in a fit of despair:
I put my hand into the billowing grey smoke and dragged [the manuscript] out on to the hearthstone. About a dozen pages were already ablaze and I had to leave those on the coals. Some of the rescued pages continued to smoke and burn. I picked them up and blew at them. Their charred edges flared briefly in the gust, but soon extinguished. Dark fragments detached from the sheaf in flurries.
Helen stared at me. She seemed so small, kneeling and hunched over with her hands held in her lap. She had seen her husband refuse to allow her dream to go up in smoke, and a hint of a smile appeared on her face.
I just didn’t want her to burn it all at once. There was enough tinder in the pages to last until spring.
But it isn’t all romance and domesticity. Delahunt’s work soon leaves an impression on his somewhat malleable personality, encouraging his self-absorption and baser instincts, as in this passage, where he’s brought to a tinker’s encampment to identify a criminal:
My gaze swept over the others. As it passed over each man they looked away, and I realized they were more afraid of me than I was of them. I went to the first man and stopped within arms’ length. There was no peril. It was like stepping to a point just beyond the reach of a tethered dog. I then walked along the line and studied each man in turn. The first two had pinched faces and days-old growth of beards. They wore long underclothes and looked at me with bloodshot eyes. I stared at them both for several seconds, and was gratified to see anxiety creep into their faces.
None of these men was honest. They were each guilty of something, and they had no idea which one of them was to be picked out, or for what reason.
It’s a frightening realization, how easily corruptible a man can be even when working for law and order, and how that law and order itself can tip over into tyranny. The Castle has noble aims, but its methods encourage the worst in its people. I don’t know if The Convictions Of John Delahunt is the actual truth behind the conviction and hanging of the real-life man – and let’s be honest, fact can often fall astoundingly short of fiction – but it’s a realistic, complex tale that raises important, topical questions about society, government and morality.
And the writing itself is really quite terrific. The novel builds to one of the most excruciatingly suspenseful passages of cat and mouse I’ve ever read in a historical mystery, as Andrew Hughes describes for us that final evening when Delahunt selects the young boy he’s planning to kill, and for whose murder he is eventually convicted. Mr. Hughes’ skill in getting us to sympathize with a murderer, and in getting us to understand why Delahunt makes the choices he makes, is only one highlight of this exceptional historical mystery.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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