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The Convictions of John Delahunt


The Convictions of John Delahunt

Set in 1840s Dublin, Andrew Hughes’ THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT is a chilling portrait of an aimless young man whose actions betray his family, his friends and, ultimately, his country. On trial for the vicious murder of a young boy, the book serves as John’s official statement for the crime for which he shows no remorse.

It would be improper to begin a review of this eerie novel without some historical background. Although characterized by rapid and impressive growth in the 18th century, the Dublin of the 1840s was still plagued by appalling poverty. This period was also marked by political decline, which can be traced back to the Acts of Union of 1800, under which the seat of government was moved to the Westminster Parliament in London. Spurred by the political and economic unrest, authorities at Dublin Castle began to pay citizens to supply information on their families, friends and countrymen. Immersive and evocative, THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT forces readers to wonder if this is the sort of society that could create a man as quietly horrifying as John Delahunt.

When first we meet John Delahunt, he is unimpressive, to say the least. A student of philosophy, he is neither particularly bright nor especially driven, making him less than popular among his peers. Still, he has an occasional friend in Arthur Stokes, who invites him for a drink with a classmate named James O’Neill. Upon arriving at the local tavern, these three men quickly take up with other students of medicine, law and philosophy. As talk turns to the Acts of Union, it becomes clear that James is something of a revolutionary. His character is a direct foil to that of John, who remains uninterested in every discussion as the night goes on.

"Hughes obviously has done his research into the finer details of Dublin’s past, and his ability to write such believable characters only enhances his superb writing."

As the night comes to a close, a fight erupts, during which a policeman is attacked and deafened. As one of the more sober young men, John bears witness to the attack and becomes worried that he will be called to testify. Days later, John is approached by a mutton-chopped man who speaks as though he knows him. Understandably suspicious, John is wary of his friendliness, but nonetheless accompanies him to a local tavern for a drink. The mysterious stranger introduces himself as Thomas Sibthorpe, a representative from the Castle. Although he explains that the authorities know that it was James who delivered the violent blow, John privately reveals to the reader that it was, in fact, Arthur. Unfortunately for James, it becomes clear that the authorities only wish to pin the crime on him for his rebellious nature. John is to become their anonymous witness --- for pay.

Although the reader is initially shocked by John’s willingness to lie and convict his acquaintance, James’ sentence results only in jail time. Still, John’s once mildly annoying quality of detachment becomes a chilling threat for future consequences. Before long, he is on the Castle’s payroll, taking on the role of private detective.

Even with his new purpose, John remains detached from the world around him. He begins courting Arthur’s sister, Helen, offering her a distraction from her high-society life. Even when he appears to be flirting with Helen, however, he remains entirely unaffected by her attention. Anyone with an understanding of women’s roles throughout history cannot help but feel for Helen. She wants so desperately to be heard and thus mistakes John’s silence for acceptance.

The progression of John and Helen’s relationship matches pace with his rise as an informant. When the two disobey Helen’s parents and elope, they are forced to move to a small apartment in town, without any sources of income or support. Meanwhile, John has now borne witness to several of the Castle’s darker methods of justice, from small lies to violent murders. When he is at his most desperate, he is offered a deal: he will supply information on his neighbors and friends to the authorities to be recorded in a massive ledger. The authorities are assembling the largest and most complete record of Dublin’s citizens to date. In the event that a crime is one day committed, they can turn to their files on the particular suspect for proof of character. Unfortunately, the nature of the system is such that John is tempted to not only watch his peers more closely, but commit crimes himself, so that they may be pinned on rebels with John collecting the rewards.

While John’s previous indiscretions seemed almost necessary, he quickly becomes horrifyingly cold-blooded. With the Castle’s power becoming ever more apparent, John’s safety seems less and less guaranteed, particularly as he botches cases and begins to lose his wife to a laudanum addiction. Hughes’ carefully drawn-out suspense is at its best here, with the reader able to sense an impending downfall that John himself is ignoring.

When Helen’s brother comes to collect her, John nearly redeems himself by showing his more sentimental side. It is clear that he misses his wife and wants her to return, yet his greed once again overrides, resulting --- though not in the way one may think --- in the murder of a young innocent.

In THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT, Andrew Hughes has created an eerily authentic world where one’s neighbors cannot be trusted and the authorities even less. John’s rapid decline from aimless student to cold-blooded killer is not only chilling, but sophisticated in its telling. Although he is unlikable from the start, no reader will find themselves able to pull away from John’s detached, remorseless character. Hughes obviously has done his research into the finer details of Dublin’s past, and his ability to write such believable characters only enhances his superb writing.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 26, 2015

The Convictions of John Delahunt
by Andrew Hughes