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This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

What an excellent book. Fiona Kidman certainly knows how to weave a story, keeping the action moving and gripping the reader. The achievement is even more extraordinary in this case because you know the final outcome right from the beginning.

Albert Black, ‘Paddy’ to his friends, was the second-to-last person to be hanged in New Zealand. Back in 1955 he was known as the infamous ‘jukebox killer’. You know the book will close with his execution, but Kidman writes so well that you are still there hoping for a reprieve or a last-minute stay of execution. I am still trying to work out exactly how she does this. I think it must be the characters she has created; Albert’s mother back in Northern Ireland, still clinging to hope of his innocence and an appeal, Albert’s lawyer walking the streets late at night looking for something else to help save the boy. And he was really only a boy; just twenty years old. Other characters that drift in and out of the story, friends he made in New Zealand, the jurors, courtroom witnesses, all are essential to making the narrative so powerful and building the tension. Most of all Albert is a likable character, we feel for him, we sense his unhappiness in a strange land and are pleased when he finds friendship and even love. We are constantly slipping back from the accounts of his trial to earlier events, charting his brief life.

Because this is a true story, there is plenty of detail for the author to work with, but what caught my attention were some of the fascinating pieces of true history. In 1954 a special report was published by Dr Oswald Mazengarb entitled ‘The Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents’. It became known as the Mazengarb report and copies were sent in the mail to 300,000 households across the country. You can download a copy for free from Project Gutenberg. It considers the growth of early sexual behaviour in teens and the influences that were driving that, including books, comics, and cinema (not TV, as that didn’t arrive in New Zealand until 1960). It considered the ways family life was failing teens, how religion was not controlling morality, how much teens could earn in a job and how easy it was to obtain contraception. The report looked to families to exert more control, and you can sense a degree of outrage that more and more mothers were going out to work. The Mazengarb Report is a fascinating insight into a moment in time. There were four executions in 1955 and two were for murders of teenagers in bars on Auckland’s Queen Street. After only a couple more years public execution ceased, and the law was repealed.

This has to rank as one of the best books of 2018 in New Zealand. Fiona Kidman guides us towards feeling that there was a miscarriage of justice, too many factors not taken into account before Albert Black was put to death, but all we can do is wonder if capital punishment was ever the right course of action.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Vintage RRP $38