This Mortal Boy, Dame Fiona Kidman

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Every year the Ngaio Marsh Awards for New Zealand Crime Fiction include something that makes this reader marvel at the depth and quality of work coming out of that country. Dame Fiona Kidman came to THIS MORTAL BOY as (paraphrasing her own words) an accidental crime writer, but she has form in the central concept, where she has often recreated the past of characters, developing a fictional story based on true events or people. THIS MORTAL BOY is just such an undertaking. 

Albert Black was the second last person executed in New Zealand, and I believe I saw somewhere that Kidman came across his story after talking to a witness to the events that lead to his conviction (this occurred in the mid 1950's). Black was Irish, born to a desperately poor family, an immigrant to New Zealand in search of prospects and a better life. Kidman takes readers back to Black's childhood in Ireland, and most tellingly gives us a glimpse into his families anguish at the conviction and the prospect of his execution. The novel concentrates on the story of Albert Black however, so we don't get the same sort of insight into the victim Alan Keith Jacques (aka Johnny McBride). Working backwards and forwards through the past and Black's life in New Zealand, Kidman seamlessly, tellingly, compellingly, draws a picture of a young man on the cusp of life who made the sorts of choices, and therefore mistakes, that many make. 

Kidman has pulled off one of those forms of novel where a true story is woven into a fictional account that doesn't play fast and loose with the truth or the ultimate outcome. A fight over a girl, leading to Black's decision to arm himself with a knife, after which an encounter with the same man who beat him the night before, turned into a single knife blow that killed his rival in love and Albert Black was ultimately executed. The build up to this event provides real insight into a febrile society. Post war, social change had arrived in New Zealand, and young people, in particular are very different. The free love, drugs and rock and roll 1960's are on the horizon, whilst 1950's bodgies and widgies subculture was thriving. The tensions around the "generation gap" were starting to be felt and there was an overwhelming belief that the younger generation were out of control. Needless to say it's a heady mix for a young Irishman from a deprived background to land into. The opportunities that present themselves on his arrival in Auckland are almost too much for him to handle, and the smack in the head that is falling in love, sends him spiralling into some really bad decision making. 

Somewhere in all of this, the line between fiction and fact becomes blurred in a manner that readers unaware of all the facts of Albert Black's crimes will be hard-pressed to pick. Kidman uses a series of letters from prison, accounts of final visits with friends and switching timelines and places to draw out a story of an immensely vulnerable young man in a time that's not best suited to understanding and forgiveness. In particularly heart-breaking fashion we also see the affects of his crime, trial and punishment on his mother. Back in Ireland, desperate to get to her son, to understand what has gone so horribly wrong, the portrayal of this woman is moving. You're left considering the ease with which young men do stupid things, a sneaking suspicion that murder was too harsh a decision, and the anguish of that mother and her belief in her son; in stark contrast to comments attributed to NZ Attorney General, John Marshall, "... we could do without these deplorable migrants". Readers have no option but to pause and consider if this is really what he said, what were the implications of that attitude on the trial and sentence?

THIS MORTAL BOY is sensitively written, beautifully constructed, considered and well balanced. It carefully delivers a number of points for the reader to contemplate - lack of compassion, lack of understanding of peer pressure, overt political interference in the judicial system, and the finality of capital punishment. It's not, however, a novel that shouts moral conclusions from the rafters. Rather it lays out the story of two young men who make stupid decisions, who lack self-control and wisdom and end up in an awful place. Whether or not they both deserved to die for this is left to the reader to consider, as is the role of the state and the judiciary when it comes to careful and cautious consideration of the facts, and the right to compassion and clear moral leadership.  Needless to say, THIS MORTAL BOY, is a mighty undertaking and a very worthy Ngaio Marsh Award Winner. 

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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?

Black's final words, as the hangman covered his head, were, 'I wish you all a merry Christmas, gentlemen, and a prosperous New Year.' This is his story. 

Review This Mortal Boy, Dame Fiona Kidman
Karen Chisholm
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Blog 2019 Ngaio Marsh Awards Longlist
Karen Chisholm
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