The Convictions of John Delahunt: Book Review
The Convictions of John Delahunt was written by Andrew Hughes and published in 2014. It is set in Victorian Dublin and is the story of a man who has been convicted of murder, showing how he came to his fate due to his activities as an informant for the British.
The Convictions of John Delahunt: Logline
In Victorian Dublin, a student is drawn into spying for the British. Penniless and desperate due to a disastrous marriage, he starts carrying out murders, framing other people and collecting the reward money. Exposed, convicted and sentenced to die, his final desire is to tell his side of the story.
The Convictions of John Delahunt: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. The major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It is 1840. John Delahunt is a student at Trinity College, Dublin. He goes drinking with James O’Neil, an Irish nationalist. O’Neil starts fighting with other students, and a policeman who intervenes ends up badly injured.
Several days later Thomas Sibthorpe contacts Delahunt. Sibthorpe works for an unspecified intelligence agency in ‘The Castle’. He wants to convict O’Neil as the policeman’s assailant to damage the nationalists. Delahunt knows that O’Neil did not strike the blow, but agrees to accuse him anyway. O’Neil is convicted and sentenced to several months hard labour.
Sibthorpe suggests Delahunt becomes a full-time informer. Delahunt discovers some information on a nationalist beating that ended in death and informs Sibthorpe. Out of curiosity Delahunt attends the subsequent trial, where he is recognised. A man follows him home and attempts to blackmail him. Delahunt strikes the man with a poker, killing him. Sibthorpe’s men help Delahunt dispose of the body.
Delahunt starts courting a childhood friend, Helen Stokes. Helen’s family opposes a marriage as beneath her. Despite this, they’re on the verge of blessing the engagement when another of Sibthorpe’s informants arrives at Delahunt’s house, badly injured. Helen’s father realises the company Delahunt keeps and withdraws his approval. The couple elope and marry anyway.
Returning, Delahunt discovers his own father has died leaving him destitute. He fails his course and leaves the university. The couple end up living in a squalid one room apartment.
One evening, Delahunt witnesses a young Italian man being mugged, and recognises the assailant. Thinking of the reward money for informing on a murder, he cuts the boy’s throat. The mugger is convicted of murder, with Delahunt the main witness at the trial.
Using the reward money, Delahunt returns to the university, but finds he can no longer concentrate on his studies. He joins the Irish nationalist club hoping to inform on its members. But Sibthorpe is not interested, as the membership is well known. “Murder is where the money is” for informers…
Helen becomes pregnant and undergoes a backstreet abortion becoming addicted to Laudanum during her recovery. Her family kidnap her, blaming Delahunt for her troubles. When he manages to see her, she has recovered from her addiction and announces she wishes to annul their marriage.
Penniless and desperate, Delahunt takes a small boy to waste-ground planning to kill him, frame the mother and collect the reward… but he can’t go through with it and lets the boy go.
Next morning, Delahunt is arrested for the boy’s murder. Sibthorpe has had the boy killed and framed Delahunt for the murder in order to rid himself of an unstable, unreliable informant. Sibthorpe threatens to release the story of Helen’s abortion and destroy what remains of her reputation unless Delahunt remains silent about the activities of Sibthorpe and his spies.
On the morning of Delahunt’s execution, Helen visits him. She offers him no comfort, merely wishing him to sign the annulment.
Facing death, Delahunt arranges to smuggle the manuscript describing his tragedy to the Castle’s archives in the hope that one day his side of the story will be told.
The Convictions of John Delahunt: Analysis
The Convictions of John Delahunt is a novel focussing on atmosphere and character. As the novel opens with Delahunt in prison and awaiting his execution, the story is not primarily plot led, although the use of thriller elements like cliffhangers, as well as the clipped style, makes it very readable.
Andrew Hughes previously wrote a non-fiction book about Dublin in the Victorian era called Lives Less Ordinary. And that research shows – The Convictions of John Delahunt is full of fascinating glimpses of Victorian Dublin. Perhaps most notable, and certainly most gruesome, is the scene in a pub where the patrons gamble on how many rats various dogs can kill in two minutes and then argue over whether some badly injured rats are ‘dead’ enough to trigger a bookmaker’s payout.
The two main characters, Delahunt himself and his wife Helen, are both initially unsympathetic figures. They spend their first scene together imagining horrible fates for the other guests at a party, and their first date is a public hanging. Delahunt does not even seem that attracted to Helen, falling into an affair on her instigation.
Delahunt’s narration is cold and unemotional, although with flashes of deadpan humour. Helen comes across as even more ruthless than Delahunt is, encouraging him to work as a spy and drawing up lists of people they can inform on that include even members of her own family. Later in the book she takes her opportunity to escape from the hole they’ve got themselves into, and sacrifices Delahunt to do so without any remorse.
Sibthorpe is the enigmatic chess master manipulating events using his network of spies, and collecting even trivial information on the population to build a repressive machine. He stabs his own people in the back and destroys them without compunction to meet his goals. His regime of informers and ‘confessions’ extracted by torture is more reminiscent of the Stasi than modern visions of Victorian Britain.
The final few chapters leave the reader horrified but ultimately sympathetic to Delahunt, who has been used and then abandoned by both Helen and Sibthorpe. It’s easy to see how he fell into the trap – a chance encounter, an unfortunate marriage, some bad luck, desperation for money, poor decisions, and the reader feels they could almost be in his shoes.
The truth behind the story
- John Delahunt was a real person. A ‘professional witness’ who was executed for the murder of Thomas Maguire in 1842. The temptation for paid informers to carry out crimes, frame others and collect the reward money was a widely debated issue – fabrication is a perennial problem for intelligence agencies.
- ‘The Italian Boy’, one of Delahunt’s victims in the novel, was Domenico Garlibardo who was murdered by an unknown assailant. Delahunt was a witness at the trial of a suspect in the case.
- Irish Nationalist movements were heavily infiltrated by spies reporting to forerunners of MI5. Several attempted Irish uprisings against British rule were put down after informers identified the ringleaders. Sibthorpe however is a fictional character.
The Convictions of John Delahunt: Book Cover
As The Convictions of John Delahunt is a new book, I’ve not done an alternative cover in the way I usually do. Instead here is the original cover which was designed by Clare Ward.
The Convictions of John Delahunt: My Verdict
A highly readable, gripping story with a surprisingly emotional ending.
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