Book review: The Convictions of John Delahunt - Andrew Hughes
Nothing has changed in capital's underbelly
The Convictions of John Delahunt
The historical novel is having a renaissance. Not least due to Hilary Mantel's double Booker success, old is the new, new. Historic fiction demands more than good storytelling ability and a grasp of history – there must be forensic detail, dialogue and drama conveyed with an assured but light hand.
The Convictions of John Delahunt is the first work of fiction by archivist Andrew Hughes and is a skilfully planned, elegantly written debut.
Through his first book, Lives less Ordinary, a non-fiction account of the 19th-Century residents of Fitzwilliam Square, he discovered some of the characters and incidents which form part of this tale.
Hughes' depth of archival knowledge weighs lightly; he avoids the temptation to heavily paint the Irish socio-political backdrop. The reader is immediately drawn into the world of Delahunt as he pens his statement from his gaol cell and, though we know he is convicted of the murder of a child, the author ingeniously creates empathy with him.
While in gaol he is visited by a phrenologist who measures the bumps on his head to ascertain, in some proto-psychiatric manner, if the source of his degeneracy can be identified. From that point, the curtains are drawn back and the story behind Delahunt's death sentence unfolds.
Set in 1840s Dublin during a time when tensions are high in Dublin Castle and Repealers are being smoked out, Delahunt's family have fallen on hard times. His father is bedridden, there are no servants and his mother is dead. The father's nurse doesn't have much time for John, he can scarcely afford to continue college and inadvertently gets drawn into informing the undercover police for payment. He is kept on the payroll for a few shillings a week. The reward for a murder conviction is £60 – murder is where the money is.
Delahunt though, has a higher purpose, to marry and take care of the heiress, Helen.
Hughes richly details the streets and lanes of Georgian Dublin, the castle with its underground passages, punishment rooms, the underworld of prostitution and public hangings in Thomas Street, while a tender side of Delahunt surfaces when confronted with backstreet abortionists, lethal contraception methods and laudanum addiction.
The underworld is never far away, whether triggered by poverty, greed, jealously or drug addiction. Nothing much has changed on the city's streets. Hughes confronts a diseased underbelly and doesn't shy away from handling the female flaws.
Whether you find Delahunt a lost soul or an amoral thug, for every criminal that goes down there is another sociopath waiting in the wings. A riveting read.