By Fiona Kidman – Based on a true story of one of the last executions in New Zealand, Fiona Kidman’s historical crime novel, This Mortal Boy, concerns a young man found guilty of murder is a powerful question mark. When is the death penalty justified? How does politics affect ‘blind justice’? Fundamentally, what is justice?
Although the novel takes place in New Zealand in late 1955, its thought-provoking issues are still germane to the United States and to the more than 50 countries where the death penalty exists today, countries where more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives.
What’s remarkable about this book is how Kidman brings forth the issues involved like specimens under a strong light, showing them in all their complexity, without ever preaching or becoming polemical. You are reading a compelling and disturbing story, not an essay.
Albert Black is a young man from tension-filled, divided Belfast, who leaves his parents and younger brother to immigrate to New Zealand for a fresh start and a better life. In a bar fight, he stabs Johnny McBride, the bully who’s been tormenting him. From his Auckland jail cell he reminisces about his upbringing on the other side of the world and his life during the two years since he left Northern Ireland. The vivid descriptions of these various communities and his circumstances, as well as his actions, make him a fully rounded person. While Kidman doesn’t romanticize him, he inspires empathy.
He feels he’s an outsider in New Zealand. That feeling turns into grim reality when he’s on trial, and jury members hold his Irishness against him. He’s ‘not one of ours,’ the judge says. Kidman also reveals the mindset of the jurors (‘set’ being the operative word) and the high-level discussions amongst the legal establishment regarding capital punishment.
She skillfully uses the frame of the trial to enable comparison of retold events to witness testimony, and while there’s no doubt that Black attacked McBride, the circumstances make both the situation and the cause of death more ambiguous than they first appear or than the court ever hears.
Albert Black was hanged 5 December 1955, and, as Kidman says in an Afterword, “A tide of disgust against the penalty overtook public perception after the hanging of Albert Black.” When a new government took over in New Zealand in 1957, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and in 1961, the death penalty was abolished.
This Mortal Boy won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the NZ Booklovers Award, the NZSA Heritage Book Award for Fiction, and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dame Fiona Kidman, DNZM, OBE, was born and lives in New Zealand and is the award-winning author of novels, poems, plays, and short stories.
Photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license