As our story begins in 1842 John Delahunt is in his Dublin prison cell, awaiting his date with the noose for the murder of the boy Thomas MacGuire. He doesn’t fight his fate, weep, beg for mercy or plead his innocence. Instead, John stoically accepts the examinations of criminologists and anthropologists and uses his last hours to commit to paper the tale of his path that led to this sorry state of affairs. In his own words, John describes his past as an impoverished student at Trinity College, who discovered how easily money could be made by informing on friends, neighbours and strangers to the ‘police’ of Dublin Castle. Learning that more money could be made from informing on a murderer rather than a mere attacker is a crucial lesson in John’s story.
The Convictions of John Delahunt throws us right back into the Dublin of the 1830s and 1840s, bringing its underworld to life in vivid colour, evoking the stench of the streets, the inns and the alleyways, peopled by locals and immigrants alike, many of whom are just one step away from dying of poverty or violence. If anyone can prove how cheap life is in these streets, it’s John Delahunt. He takes us on a seedy trail. The Castle is a terrifying and sinister place where justice is corrupt and violent, and often for sale. Close to the beginning of his account, John describes watching a hanging with his intended, Helen. It’s coldly done.
John Delahunt may be our narrator but he is by no means a man that you would want to meet. He displays no empathy towards his fellow human beings at all, with the exception of his bride Helen and even then his behaviour towards her is hardly that of a warm loving man. It is as if John is playing the role of suitor, lover, husband, but if anyone can be called close to John it is Helen. Whether she has any more morality than her husband is another matter entirely. John’s relationships with his dying father, his father’s nurse, the Castle agents, his University friends, strangers in the pub reveal a great deal about John to us, his readers and judges.
Helen is a fascinating character, though we view her only through her husband’s eyes. She has to endure a great deal through the course of this marriage and it has a devastating impact on her. It’s difficult not to care for her through her trials even though she shows time and time again what a good match she is for John Delahunt. Circumstances and fate (or bad fortune) must take their part of the blame for the events of the novel, albeit a relatively small share.
Andrew Hughes is to be congratulated for not only bringing this world to vivid life but also populating it so richly with intriguing, dark and dangerous characters. John Delahunt is an unreliable narrator but he’s a fascinating one. His story is utterly compelling and gripping. At times he seems to show that he has always been up against forces more powerful than poverty or the loss of a mother – there is a strong sense of destiny in John’s progress to the noose.
The Convictions of John Delahunt is such an enjoyable read (not to mention a very handsome hardback). It is a true story transformed into dark and mysterious crime fiction, set in a time and place that I now want to know much more about.