If there is on man you can rely on to fully embrace the #secretbookclub, it’s Richard Lewis. His ability to read and provide thought-felt reviews for historical fiction novels put us to shame. After his review of Andrew Hughes’s ‘The Convictions of John Delahunt’, Richard was so intrigued by the story that he sat down with Andrew to ask him the following questions.
Richard Lewis: This is your first novel, based on research for your previous publication, ‘Lives Less Ordinary’. How did you come across John Delahunt?
Andrew Hughes: Lives Less Ordinary collected the stories of Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. There was a trial in the 1840s, of Daniel O’Connell, the nationalist Irish leader. His jury was rigged. When the guilty verdict was delivered he said, ‘That jury would’ve convicted me of the murder of the Italian Boy.’ I immediately began looking for newspaper reports about that case and I came across the name Delahunt. He was the Crown’s prosecution witness. The more I looked for his name the more I realised that Delahunt was involved in several murder cases. He was a paid informer for Dublin Castle. He begun to commit crimes and frame others so he could collect the reward money. My publisher said his brother was running an historical fiction workshop, so I went along. I remembered Delahunt’s story and wrote the whole book as part of the workshop.
Richard: Would you recommend writing workshops for other first time writers?
Andrew: I would. There’s this social element. There are four or five writers, first time writers like me, who meet up every week. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Everybody produces the latest bit of their work in progress and we all read it and comment on it and make changes. Especially early on, it’s great to get that feedback.
Elizabeth Masters (Andrew’s Publicity Manager): Would it have been very different if you hadn’t had that week-by-week feedback?
Andrew: I don’t think it would’ve been possible. It was really a support network that I built, a group I could trust. We’ve become friends. We trust each other, and they trust me with their stuff.
Richard: What was it about Delahunt that caught your eye?
Andrew: There was a real life report of the examination that the phrenologist produced. That just seemed like an excellent way in to the story. It was also a way of immediately establishing Delahunt’s character. He observes the doctor and the absurdities of his new science so he can see through it and comment on it, but he’s still subject to it. Those were the first two pages that I wrote and so I just went from there.
Richard: There isn’t a stand out good character in the book, they all have their flaws.
Andrew: When Delahunt is your starting character, everyone is bound to look slightly nicer than him. Some people think that Helen is almost as bad as Delahunt. Once she gets an inkling of what his life is really like she doesn’t draw back from it, she almost suggests ways he should go about it. But I imagine Helen as this modern girl transported back to the 1840s. The fact that she takes Delahunt to the hanging, that she ask him out on a date, and she very much drives the relationship. I wanted Helen to come out of it with at least some of her life intact, with the possibility of redemption.
Richard: Delahunt doesn’t focus on his demise. He has a very inhuman reaction, a kind of calculated reaction. Why is that?
Andrew: The only normal feeling is with his sister, and at least as much as Delahunt is capable, it’s there with Helen. He doesn’t dwell on his fate.
Elizabeth: Do the characters follow you around? Like you’re sat on the tube and you think, ‘that man’s just raised his eyebrows in the same way Delahunt might’?
Andrew: You kind of notice certain things, and attribute them to a character at the time. It struck me a lot when I was writing it that I was using this real man’s story. I would get this odd sensation that Delahunt is out there somewhere, buried. He’s a real life guy. And Thomas Maquire was this real life kid who was murdered. So that weighed on me a bit, that I was using their stories.
Richard: At the end, he’s meant to be killing Thomas Maquire, but he can’t.
Andrew: That strange walk they have throughout the city is based on the actual murder. Delahunt and the boy went on this strange ramble around the city and it probably was Delahunt trying to pluck up the courage to do it. Could I have Delahunt commit the murder? Would that be a step too far for readers? I like the idea of some kind of redemption for Delahunt’s character. He’s not completely evil, he’s a victim of circumstance more than anything.
Richard: At the end of the book you say his confession, the real one, was forged.
Andrew: The real life character was a child murderer at the end of the day, he wasn’t a nice individual. That was part of the challenge, how to make a character like that somebody you could empathise with.
Richard: What do you imagine became of Delahunt?
Andrew: It’s true that the phrenologist did take his body and did a plaster cast. Imagine coming across it. It could just be sitting in some cupboard, ready to pop out at me.
Richard: Have you got any plans for future novels?
Andrew: I’m writing my second novel at the moment. It’s again historical fiction, but this time it’s completely fictional. It’s set in 1816 and it’s about a young lady sleuth. She’s the daughter of the coroner in 1816 Dublin and a series of murders start to happen and she starts to investigate it and figure it out. After Delahunt I wanted to write a main character that was the hero rather than the villain.
Richard: The reactions to this book so far have been brilliant. How do you feel about this?
Andrew: It’s been great. It’s hard to know what to expect when you send it out. But they’ve all been very kind, so it’s just brilliant.