Dublin at its dark­est

NICK REN­NI­SON en­joys an un­usual and macabre story from the 19th-cen­tury streets of the Ir­ish cap­i­tal

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Fiction - Nick Ren­ni­son is the au­thor of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

The Coroner’s Daugh­ter By An­drew Hughes Dou­ble­day, 336 pages, £13.99

Few works of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion have such an ar­rest­ing open­ing sen­tence as this sec­ond novel by Ir­ish au­thor An­drew Hughes. “For my 18th birth­day,” it be­gins, “fa­ther promised me the hand of a hand­some young man, which he duly de­liv­ered mounted in a glass bell-jar.” In its blend of the macabre, the un­ex­pected and the blackly hu­mor­ous, it sets the tone for the story that fol­lows.

Set in 1816, Hughes’s tale is nar­rated by Abi­gail Law­less, daugh­ter of the north Dublin coroner. She shares her fa­ther’s fas­ci­na­tion with foren­sic science and chafes against the re­stric­tions that her class and gen­der place upon her life. When a young nurse­maid in a neigh­bour’s house, who has con­cealed her preg­nancy and then sup­pos­edly killed her new­born son, is her­self found dead, Abi­gail is cer­tain that there is more to the story than the au­thor­i­ties be­lieve. Ven­tur­ing out of the safe con­fines of her home and her ev­ery­day rou­tines, she be­gins her own in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Abi­gail rapidly finds her­self in deep wa­ters. Pow­er­ful peo­ple want the whole sor­did busi­ness hushed up and will twist the law to en­sure that it is. Mr Darby, the charis­matic leader of an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian sect, seems to have se­crets to con­ceal. One of his fol­low­ers, a young woman who was once Abi­gail’s friend, is found drowned in a reser­voir. And a sin­is­ter figure, a mys­te­ri­ous man with a lazy eye, ap­pears to be stalk­ing Abi­gail through the city streets. Her own life looks to be in dan­ger.

The Coroner’s Daugh­ter raises some ques­tions it doesn’t an­swer sat­is­fac­to­rily. Would a young woman of that era and class, even one so spir­ited and in­tel­lec­tu­ally ad­ven­tur­ous as Abi­gail, be free to act as she does? Does the com­pli­cated and twist­ing plot ring en­tirely true? De­spite these reser­va­tions, The Coroner’s Daugh­ter is un­doubt­edly a richly at­mo­spheric, un­usual and very read­able his­tor­i­cal thriller.

An­drew Hughes’s darkly hu­mor­ous novel opens with a fa­ther’s strange gift to his daugh­ter on her birth­day: body parts in a bell-jar

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