Twenty-year-old Albert Black was hanged at Eden Mount prison in 1955. Moral outrage at juvenile delinquency undoubtedly played a part in condemning the young man. Paradoxically, moral outrage at the brutality of this execution contributed to the eventual abolition of capital punishment in New Zealand. Fiona Kidman would have been fifteen at the time, a little younger than her character, Rita Zilich, a key witness at the Black trial. It’s mild speculation on my part, but the events surrounding the trial must have left an indelible mark on the author and led to this fiction – what novel doesn’t spring from real life? Kidman is now a passionate advocate for Albert Black’s pardon. This Mortal Boy is a work of fiction that relies heavily upon fact, events are as they were, but to explain the story it explores a fictional interior of the characters. As we know the outcome of this story it’s all the more impressive that This Mortal Boy is utterly gripping and tense.

The thing that makes this a special novel is the calm measured approach Kidman takes to the material. This is an excoriating repudiation of the death penalty not because it is emotional but because it is cool, analytical, evidence based and well reasoned. Kidman addresses the issue of guilt, of mitigation, and of intent. This Mortal Boy makes it clear, regardless of whether you think Black to be a murderer or not, he was railroaded as part of a backlash against youth culture and immigrants. The old guard still wanting to prove they were in charge and expressing their fear of the unknown, the uncontrolled, as if it was some kind of moral superiority. The fact that the newspapers of the day referred to the stabbing as ‘the jukebox killing’ tells you much about the attitudes of the time. The Merengarb Report, published in New Zealand just before Black was tried, was a condemnation the moral values of the young, it led to a backlash against things seen as bad influences, such as music, dress and the coffee shop culture. A brief survey of any time in history will show that older generations bemoaned the evils of youth. Kidman reveals the manipulation of the process and the ingrained prejudices of those in a position to influence this trial and its outcome. A fundamental weakness in the implementation of capital punishment is highlighted. Put simply, even if it were right, it isn’t applied fairly and is often a political football. Kidman doesn’t make esoteric arguments, nothing I picked up didn’t come from the natural and very human presentation of the story. If you inherently believe the death penalty to be wrong this is the kind of story that will make your blood boil, in all other cases it should at least give pause for thought.

There’s a moment in the trial of Albert Black where the prosecution barrister draws an admission from the boy that seems to condemn him, a nail in the coffin as it were. For me, this admission confirms it as manslaughter because it goes to whether Black was in his right mind or simply acting as a scared youth. I will let you find this moment for yourselves but it reminded me of a different but pivotal moment in Ruth Ellis’s trial (the last woman to be hanged in Britain). The prosecution barrister described her unloading of the gun as proof of her intent to kill when, in fact, it’s a sign of loss of control. Firing once would have been an indication of calculation, firing five times indicates a lack of premeditation.

This Mortal Boy demonstrates that the court, the jury and the press were looking for a simple explanation for the tragic death of a young man, Alan Jacques. They wanted simple, convincing evidence not a complex tale loaded with doubt. We see how memory is unreliable, even in the most scrupulous witness and how important details are left out by design or because they are considered unimportant. The men who make the decisions that lead to the execution of Black have forgotten they were ever young and that they made mistakes, fortunately without tragic consequences.

Amidst the atmosphere of anti-youth sentiment and a fear of cultural change Albert Black faced a more direct prejudice, he is an immigrant, an Irishman, a Paddy. As if somehow the new arrivals lowered the tone of the ‘neighbourhood’. It doesn’t take many generations for people to forget they were also immigrant stock.

Eden Mount prison, October, 1955. Albert Black, known as Paddy, is singing, a chorus of voices from the other cells yell:

‘Shut up, not really meaning it for him, it’s just something to scream about when men are locked in stone cells behind steel doors, they shout and they scream day and night and their voices are the one thing they have, their voices that the warders can’t control.’

Albert is a ten pound Pom, an immigrant, from arrival in a new country to trial for the murder of Alan Jacques, alias Johnny MacBride, is barely a year. At the Supreme Court in Auckland the all male jury have been sworn in. A bank manager, an accountant, a company director, a university lecturer, a gas fitter et al. – twelve good men? Albert’s lawyer, Oliver Buchanan, hopes the jury will not be prejudiced against the Irish lad and that they can remember their own youth.

Halfway round the world Kathleen Black receives the news that her son is in trouble, she waits for Bert to get home:

‘It’ll have been a mistake. You’ll see, they’ll sort it out over there in New Zealand.’

There isn’t an inmate at Mount Eden prison who doesn’t know that Allwood was hanged a few days before, the third man this year. Albert heard them erecting the gallows, known as the Meccano set. Allwood told Black that he didn’t know when it would happen, they weighed him every day to maintain the deception.

Albert pleads not guilty to murder at Ye Olde Barn cafe, although he admits knifing Jacques in the neck. John Marshall, the Attorney General in Wellington, is proud of having restored the death penalty and is keen to put off the mother from travelling to avoid sympathetic press coverage. There is little empathy for the family who cannot afford their son’s defence costs. People in Northern Ireland donate, they raise £90 for Kathleen’s fare, it’s not enough.

Albert Black only came to New Zealand to escape the hateful religious divide in his home town, Belfast. The rows with his father over a Catholic girl:

“You put us to shame with this girl. You’re an Ulsterman.”

And:

“You walk out with a girl from the other side and before you know it she has you up the aisle and you’ve become a Papist.”

In New Zealand Black is lonely, he learns to drink for the first time, meets new friends, though he is wary of Alan Jacques. The murder follows a row between Jacques and Black, the Irishman took a beating the night before. The first witness sixteen-year-old Rita Zilich swears Black threatened to kill Jacques . . .

As the trial progresses Kidman reveals the background to the story in flashback. Peppered with memories of family, of growing up, of making mistakes and trying to fit in but also what the jurymen bring to the trial in the way they think before the evidence is heard. It’s a sad tale that illustrates an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind and the death penalty makes a country a nastier place.

This Mortal Boy leaves one with the feeling that this trial was a terrible and tragic waste of a human life. No human life has ever been restored by the taking of another. Unfortunately:

‘. . . when it comes to Albert Black, he [Buchanan] knows. The judge has spelled it out. Not wanted here.’

You may arrive at a different conclusion, but while Albert Black wasn’t innocent, he was not a murderer, more like a frightened boy making a tragic mistake. The final two minutes of Albert’s life based on an eye witness report will chill you, the dignity of Black in contrast to the sparsity of humanity in the court room or the political arena tells it’s own story.

Paul Burke 5/4

This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman
Belgravia 9781910709580 pbk Aug 2019