Victorian Dublin thriller that's certain to chill the blood
Andrew Hughes's debut novel opens in 1842, in the Kilmainham Gaol cell of the condemned John Delahunt, who has been sentenced to hang for the murder of young Thomas Maguire.
Determined to give his side of the story before he dies, Delahunt scribbles a first-person testimony on scraps of paper – although given that Delahunt is an informer for Dublin Castle, and one not above lying to secure a murder conviction for an innocent man, the reader would do well to take Delahunt's account with a hefty pinch of salt.
Indeed, it's the self-conscious unreliability of Delahunt as a narrator that gives this charismatic sociopath much of his charm.
A historian who has previously published Lives Less Ordinary – Dublin's Fitzwilliam Square 1798-1922 (Liffey Press, 2011), Andrew Hughes situates this fictionalised account of the historical figure of John Delahunt in a vividly rendered early Victorian Dublin, but never forgets that his first duty as a novelist is to explore the mystery of character.
The structure and tone of the story are reminiscent of John Banville's The Book of Evidence, and the fictional John Delahunt is both a literary descendant and a spiritual ancestor of Freddie Montgomery.
Delahunt is at times a ruthless machine of a man, a cynical misanthropist who feeds on other people's misery, yet he is capable of great tenderness towards his wife, Helen, and is fully aware of his personal shortcomings, especially in terms of his lack of political or philosophical convictions.
The style, too, is neatly judged. Hughes doesn't stint on the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian Dublin – a scene where dogs engage in a rat-catching frenzy is particularly toe-curling – but the crisp prose is refreshingly free of stilted, quasi-Victorian phrasing, while the dialogue is delivered in an understated way.
In fact, there's a distinctly modern flavour to the entire story: the deals Delahunt cuts with his Dublin Castle employers, the double-crosses and back-stabbing and 'confessions' extracted in subterranean cells wouldn't be out of place in a contemporary hardboiled crime novel.
Yet it's an endearingly old-fashioned novel too, chock-full of the kind of cliff-hangers and reversals of fortune that are to be found in those Victorian stories which were serialised in newspapers and magazines before being bound into novels.
These give the story an urgency and tension that might otherwise have been lacking, given that the reader understands from the off that Delahunt must hang. Likewise, the foreboding atmosphere is offset by Delahunt's bleak sense of humour, which is employed as often as not against himself.
It's a bracing, lurid tale that is as engrossing as it is chilling, and a fascinating glimpse into one of the darker periods in Dublin's history.
The Convictions of John Delahunt, Andrew Hughes, Doubleday Ireland, €18.75