Sunday, July 8, 2018


THIS MORTAL BOY by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

An utterly compelling recreation of the events that led to one of the last executions in New Zealand.

Albert Black, known as the 'jukebox killer', was only twenty when he was convicted of murdering another young man in a fight at a milk bar in Auckland on 26 July 1955. His crime fuelled growing moral panic about teenagers, and he was to hang less than five months later, the second-to-last person to be executed in New Zealand.

But what really happened? Was this a love crime, was it a sign of juvenile delinquency? Or was this dark episode in our recent history more about our society's reaction to outsiders?

When Dame Fiona Kidman was fifteen years old, a young immigrant from Belfast had his life ended at the gallows within the volcanic rock walls of Mt Eden prison in Auckland. Albert "Paddy" Black had only just farewelled the teenage years himself. He'd come to New Zealand as an eighteen-year-old, a 'ten pound Pom' aboard a steamship searching for a better life. He had no inkling then that his life had barely two years left to run, or that his death would play a key part in New Zealand finally abolishing the death penalty, despite political infighting.

The case stuck with Kidman, who in the six decades since has become a doyenne of the New Zealand storytelling scene as an award-winning novelist, poet, short story writer, and scriptwriter. She's also produced journalism and non-fiction books, and explored real-life personalities and events through her novels. That's the case with her latest book, THIS MORTAL BOY, which is also something of a departure for Kidman in that the majority of her very fine oeuvre has focused on the lives of women.

But what THIS MORTAL BOY does share with Kidman's past novels is, as the New Zealand Book Council has said, a focus "on how outsiders navigate their way in narrowly conformist society".

As Kidman eloquently shows throughout, mid 1950s New Zealand was a politic conservative place,  a country still recovering in a way from the losses and scars of the Second World War. Onscreen James Dean is rebelling without a cause, and teenagers are looking for excitement and fun in a way that worries those in authority. Mickey Spillane's books, considered indecent by some due to their unabashed portrayal of sex and violence, are hugely popular with the younger generation. Politicians are worried about the rise of bodgie and widgie culture, about teenager's sexual escapades outside the capital, and the violence and lawlessness they associated with teenagers.

It is against this backdrop that young Paddy Black from Belfast is trying to find his way in a new land. A young man considered British in his homeland, Irish in his new home, who grew up with the 'us and them' of sectarian divides, and now faces both welcome and discrimination as an immigrant.

Many things change, many stay the same.

Kidman delivers rich characterisation, not just from the viewpoint of Paddy Black, but of many others associated with his short life and sudden end. Why did this rather gentle young man who loved to sing and dance thrust a knife into the neck of Alan Jacques beside a jukebox in a downtown cafe? Had he gone off the rails as he'd come of age and embraced the bodgie lifestyle? Was it a callous murder by a young delinquent, more evidence of an epidemic the Mazengarb Report said was sweeping the nation? Or was the story more complex than what was published in the newspapers?

THIS MORTAL BOY doesn't just take us into the courtroom, or recreate the main events that led to two deaths, but goes much broader and deeper. Kidman gives us a textured, holistic view on a life that was more than a symbol, or an entry in a history book. We get a flavour for Black's childhood in Belfast, his earliest experiences working in the Hutt Valley, a peek into the jury room and the political chamber. We experience the grief of a family getting the most traumatic news by telegram from a half a world away. We see the differing effect on everyone at a prison as the gallows are readying for use.

While we're taken through varying times and perspectives, Kidman keeps everything flowing beautifully. It never feels 'jumpy' or disjointed, instead it's a story that builds in depth and texture. A harrowing and haunting tale that is full of humanity. Kidman raises plenty of questions about the conviction of Paddy Black. There's no doubt he stabbed Jacques, a violent youth who'd adopted the name of a Mickey Spillane character as his identity, but was it really murder? The dice seemed loaded against Black from the start, regardless of the real circumstances. Where does justice lie?

This is an exquisitely written novel from a master storyteller; an important and fascinating read.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

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