Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
What if Cormac McCarthy was Australian and wrote accessible prose? The result might be quite a bit like Paul Howarth’s debut novel. Set largely in the Australian cattlelands of the 1880s, Only Killers and Thieves is a book about good and evil, innocence and experience, white and black, and the near impossibility of maintaining your ideals in a corrupted world.
Tommy McBride is the younger son of a cattle rancher. Drought has rendered the family ranch nearly free of vegetation and left the cattle hungry and barely worth selling. The family has been reduced to laying off most of their ranch-hands and subsisting on thin soups. Their debt to their swaggering landlord, John Sullivan, hangs over their heads.
Sullivan, the richest and most powerful man in the area, has allied himself with the head of the so-called Native Police. Edward Noone is a ruthless man who scoffs at the very notion that there is such a thing as right or wrong. Beating and killing natives comes as naturally to him as breathing.
Eventually a tragedy leaves Tommy and his older brother Billy with no choice but to turn to Sullivan and Noone for help. As they set out seeking vengeance they believe to be just, Tommy and Billy will find their sibling bond severely tested as Tommy in particular struggles to understand the rules of the world of men. Sullivan and Noone both fascinate and repulse him, and their hold over Billy dismays him.
As their group rides further and further away from the loose holds of civilization, Howarth’s prose gathers intensity, leaving the reader breathlessly anticipating the next turn of fate. Howarth’s capacity for imagined terrors is immense. The complexity he brings to each character and to each predicament they face is much appreciated.
While most readers will see the eventual resolution coming from miles away, the journey is more important than the destination, and Howarth proves an entertaining storyteller. With Sullivan, Noone, and Tommy McBride, Howarth has created a trio of memorable characters, an achievement for any novelist.