This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman — a failure of justice
This Mortal Boy is a challenging book to read for anyone who abhors the death penalty as much as I do.
The novel is based on the true case of Albert Black, a young Irish man who fell in with the wrong crowd in 1950s New Zealand and found himself sentenced to death.
Black, also known as “Paddy” was just twenty years old when he got into a fight with another man at a milk bar in Auckland in July 1955. He was sent to the gallows less than five months later, all appeals and applications for clemency having failed.
Fiona Kidman recreates the events leading up to his death, setting it into a context of a burgeoning youth culture that caused moral outrage among conservative New Zealanders and their political leaders. Part of the novel relates Black’s experiences as an immigrant from Ireland and then as a prisoner awaiting execution. Other chapters are set in Belfast where Black’s family spearhead a petition for clemency, appealing for help to their MP and their Queen.
Seeking a New Life
In Kidman’s telling, Black arrived in New Zealand as a “Ten Pound Pom” — an immigrant on an assisted passage excited about the “limitless possibility” of his new life. He seemed happy initially, finding work and lodging with a young widow and her children in the Hutt Valley. But he left for Auckland, lured by the prospect of better pay and a more exciting life in the city’s milk bars and dance halls.
It’s in one of those milk bars that Black encountered a brusque English seaman who styled himself “Johnny McBride” after a Mickey Spillane character. McBride moved into the boarding house where Black was a caretaker but tensions soon surfaced between the pair.
McBride gave the younger lad a severe beating at a party one night after which Black decided to carry a knife. The next night after a scuffle over the juke box, Black stabbed the seaman in the neck. It proved fatal.
The question for the jury was whether Black acted in self defence or set out deliberately to kill McBride. In Kidman’s narrative, the young Irishman never had a chance of getting a fair trial for, in the 1950s, “Moral panic had seized the country as word spread of an epidemic of loose behaviour by teenagers.”
In the eyes of conservative New Zealanders, the rise of bodgies and widgies (think mods and rockers) was all the fault of the American soldiers who had corrupted people’s minds with their candy and jitterbug dances. American pop music and pulp fiction also had a bad influence.
Victim of Moral Outrage
The country’s prime minister Sid Holland led the charge against such behaviour, commissioning a report on the moral decline of teenagers in New Zealand that was delivered to every household. The youngsters like Black who hung around cafes in outlandish clothes and read banned books, were morally reprehensible according to his report.
Sex, he made clear (although he preferred the term carnal knowledge) was not something polite people talked about and young people had no right to get up to it. Young girls needed protecting from themselves. They would never get husbands if they got up to tricks beforehand.
in the eyes of the prime minister, Black and his cohorts were delinquents who had to be stamped out. Sentencing him would send a “short, sharp reminder to those who follow reprehensible modes of living and are sexually promiscuous,” Holland declares to those of his ministers who are proposing clemency.
It’s clear that Kidman’s sympathies lie with Black. He loves dancing and partying but generally he’s a kind, gentle, homesick lad. He yearns to return to his family in Belfast but knows it’s going to take a long while before he’ll have saved up enough money for the fare. Until then he finds solace by singing old Irish songs.
Black’s calm demeanour while in prison deeply affects many of the people who come into contact with him. His lawyer is haunted by the thought that his own sons could so easily have suffered the same fate. Tellingly, his experience of defending Black has made him question his faith in the justice system. “Once, he would have wished them to follow the law, as he has done, but now he hopes they will not. The law, as it stands at this moment, seems cruel and unjust.”
This Mortal Boy is a book that makes you think. On one level it’s a story of one ordinary man who just wanted a better life but makes one disastrous mistake. But in delving into the forces ranged against Albert Black, Kidman presents one of the most convincing arguments against political interference in justice.
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman: Footnotes
New Zealander novelist and poet Fiona Kidman, worked as a librarian and a freelance journalist early in her career. She began writing novels in the late 1970s, often featuring young women who subvert society’s expectations, inspired by her involvement in the women’s liberation movement. Her first novel, A Breed of Women (1979), caused controversy for this reason but became a bestseller in New Zealand. Over the course of her career, Kidman has written eleven novels, seven short-story collections, two volumes of her memoirs and six collections of poetry.
She has received numerous awards and honours during her career, including the Ngaio Marsh Award for a television play in 1971 and an Arts Council Award for Achievement in 1988. In 1988 Kidman was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to literature. In the 1998 New Year Honours she was appointed a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
This Mortal Boy, published in 2018, was sparked by her interest in “how some young men live their lives, believing they are immortal, yet one terrible mistake can change everything for them and their families.”
Details of Albert Black’s conviction were reported in The Press, Auckland on 22, Oct 1955. Black was hanged in Auckland on 5 Dec 1955. After his death, public support for capital punishment diminished. Hanging for the crime murder was officially abolished in New Zealand in October 1961.
I read this book as part of my #20booksofsummer project in 2022. I’m counting it as book 15 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022
31 thoughts on “This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman — a failure of justice”
I remember ‘bodgies and widgies’ from when I was a young teen, and a country boy. By the time I got to the city (Melbourne) in 1966 mods, sharpies, stylists and rockers were the thing. But I remember too that youth culture was regarded as both alien and dangerous, and was extensively reported on, especially in the tabloid Sun.
Now I’m in Perth, my ex-wife and her sisters were from the same suburb as “the last man hanged” and know his sons, one of whom I still see sometimes. He was a terrible man, still endlessly fascinating to Perth writers – see Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net for instance – but I’m not in favour of capital punishment. And even if I were, I don’t think police can be trusted to tell the truth often enough for us to be certain of every felon’s guilt.
Too often the death penalty is used as a form of retribution or revenge rather than as a punishment.
On the strength of your review and all the comments , I’ve bought this book, Karen. Thank you.
I won’t say I hope you enjoy it Judith because it’s a troubling story. So all I can say is I hope you appreciate it as much as I did
I’m sure I will, Karen. This has to be the one good reason that capital punishment should never return.
Even allowing for Kidman’s treatment of this story as fiction it sounds to be moving powerful stuff. This is execution as revenge on a whole generation who might not accept a narrow view of what human life is about, not as punitive justice: ‘sending a message’ ignores the essential inhumanity of legalised killing.
I thought this book was superb, such a nuanced portrayal of the situation. My heart ached for the boy’s mother unable to travel to say her last goodbye.
The family were victims also of political manipulation I felt.
Oh yes, that’s true. Law and Order is manipulated by unscrupulous politicians every chance they get, outbidding each other with tougher penalties, never mind the research that proves intervention programs lead to greater public safety.
Twas ever thus. I recently did a course about crime and punishment in the Victorian era and you can see clearly how sentences were used as a weapon to support different ideas about the purpose of punishment. Hard labour must have been the most inhuman sentence possible – what purpose did it serve to have prisoners in solitary confinement turn a handle in their cell thousands and thousands of times.
As with so many things, it’s really a failure of the education system to educate people to think clearly and realise when they are being manipulated.
It hasn’t improved in all the years since
I can see elements of this would be challenging but also fascinated. It certainly sounds very compelling. I remember how angry and fascinated I was by The Fortune Men. The idea of miscarriages of justice is so terrifying especially during the period of the death penalty.
Did you see that the South Wales police this week issued an apology to the man whose story is told in The Fortune Men?
I hadn’t seen that, that’s good to hear.
This sounds like required reading for the increasingly large band of politicians who seek to mould the justice system to their own political beliefs. I’ve discovered it is available at our library – rather to my surprise – but only as an e-book. I’ll have to look further afield.
Happy to pass on my copy to you Margaret.
I might even take you up on that! I haven’t investigated the market yet,
I’ll hold onto it for a few weeks just in case
I’m not a fan of the death penalty and this sounds like a tragic example of why we shouldn’t have it… 🙁
And why politicians should never be involved in reviewing cases or passing comments.
And why the media shouldn’t keep baiting them into making stupid comments about ‘law and order’.
One mistake – just one … for one’s fate to be determined. A lovely review thank you .. justice is so often skewed and fails to protect those who most need it.
He never even got a fair trial.
What a tragic story. I don’t understand how the same people who want to bring life into the world at all costs can support the death penalty.
It defies logic Deb. This week the police force in South Wales apologised for a similar miscarriage of justice in Wales 70 years ago, admitting that their investigation had been flawed. Not much help to the family of the man who was hanged – they are all dead.
I share your abhorrence of the death penalty, Karen, but if I’d needed any persuasion before reading this novel I certainly wouldn’t have afterwards. A deeply moving piece of writing.
It’s hard to read this book without feeling so angry at the way the so called justice system failed him.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Fiona Kidman at the Belfast Book Festival about five years ago and she is a lovely woman! I’ve had this book on my TBR for ages and you’ve made me want to get to is as soon as possible!
It captured my interest from the first page Cathy. The more I read the more angry I became at the way this young man was treated.