Debut novelist Hughes imagines the circumstances leading up to the Victorian-era real-life hanging of John Delahunt, a convicted Irish child-murderer.
Trinity College education near complete, Delahunt anticipated launching himself into 1840s Dublin society as a gentleman. Then his father died. Delahunt soon learned the estate was mortgaged to pay for his father’s care. That was an inopportune time to meet Thomas Sibthorpe, who works for the shadowy "Department" at the Castle, headquarters of Dublin’s police. Transpiring thereafter is an intense character study, one in which Delahunt’s life becomes Hobbesian—nasty, brutish, and short. He accepts money from Sibthorpe to give false testimony about a street fight in which a constable was injured. Delahunt sees an opportunity for more easy money, necessary because he’s wooing Helen, a young woman of substance. Delahunt approaches her father for permission to marry. It’s granted, then rescinded once the father discovers Delahunt’s proclivities. The couple elopes. Helen is rejected by her family. The pair lands in a decrepit apartment. Delahunt later witnesses an assault, but there’s more money in witnessing murder. Delahunt, psychopathic and greedy, kills the wounded man. His testimony leads to an innocent being hanged. Helen’s the more ambiguous character. Although ignorant of the murder, she acquiesced to perjury for money. Then she descends into laudanum addiction following a botched abortion, and the marriage collapses, as does Delahunt. There’s much that is cringe-inducing as these less-than-admirable characters skulk through the cold, rain-drenched streets of Victorian Dublin. "Lyster had begun to use my fork to clean the grime from beneath his fingernails," Delahunt notes when a Sibthorpe cohort visits his apartment, a fitting observation of character in this tragedy, which is morbid reading on every page.
A Kafkaesque study of an amoral weakling consumed by an unrestrained bureaucracy.