Laura Skippen is an obsessive reader and loves crime books, thrillers and history, preferably all three. All this reading (others might call it procrastination) means she has yet to get any of her own ideas on paper.
It is 1842 and John Delahunt is pondering his mortality, which is a rather more pressing matter for him than it is for most of us as he is soon to hang for the murder of a young boy, Thomas Maguire. Delahunt is the narrator for the novel and it is a testimony to some brilliant writing that despite the fact that he is a murderous sociopath you may find yourself unhappy at the thought of what awaits him.
In the opening scene the condemned man is visited by a phrenologist who tells him that whilst his criminality is clearly evident in the contours of his skull so too is the ability to resist it. This is the catalyst for the story as Delahunt winds his way back to where his decline begins. As a student, struggling to make ends meet after his family has fallen on hard times, he is visited by the sinister detective, Sibthorpe, after he witnesses an attack on a policeman. His willingness to bend the truth and co-operate with the police is noted and soon he finds himself acting as an informant to Dublin Castle, earning good money in the process.
Meanwhile his elopement with the eligible Helen results in her being disinherited and his disreputable employment is all that allows him to provide for his new bride. One of his few redeeming features is his affection for his wife, but the need to maintain her pushes him to betray everyone around him. Finally, fatally, he begins to commit the crimes he is being paid to help solve.
Andrew Hughes’ debut novel is based on a true story that shocked and fascinated Victorian Dublin. The city is a character in itself; from the dazzling surroundings of a debutantes’ ball in a beautiful Georgian townhouse, to the lowlife taverns and the miserable gaol which Delahunt will later call home. The author’s detailed research is vividly brought to life and the scenes of the everyday cruelty of rat baiting, public hangings and backstreet abortions are almost uncomfortable to read. The real star of course is Delahunt himself, a self-aware narrator who observes himself dispassionately and admits his own failings in a disarming, and occasionally humorous, manner. The story may be bleak and the tragic outcome is clear from the first page, yet it is still utterly compelling.