— The Killing Hills, by Chris Offutt (Grove Press, 2021)
American artist George Ault (1891-1948) is known for his paintings of nighttime rural settings, deceptively quaint yet mysterious depictions of barns, and desolate town corners shaped by light and shadow. The cover of Chris Offutt’s latest novel, The Killing Hills, has an Aultian character to it that aptly captures the essence of this thriller, a story of violence and blood feuds but also quiet moments of foreboding deep in the eastern Kentucky hills.
Mick Hardin is an Army intelligence officer who normally investigates homicides in military facilities around the world. Having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returns to his native Rowan County in eastern Kentucky after he finds out his wife is pregnant – and the child may not be his. While Hardin dwells on whether to meet his wife or not, and spends his days in alcoholic stupor, his sister Linda, the county’s new sheriff, asks him for help. Local resident Nonnie Johnson has been found dead in the woods. According to Linda, “There never was a body in Rowan County that most folks didn’t already know who did it. Usually a neighbor, a family, or drugs. Maybe two drunks who argued over a dog. This is different. Everybody liked her.”
In spite of the gruesomeness of the crime, the assignment helps Mick avoid sorting out his situation with his wife Peggy as well as stop engaging in self-destructive behavior. Throughout the course of the siblings’ investigation, we meet a colorful cast of characters. Old Man Tucker, a retired school janitor and ginseng hunter who first finds Nonnie’s body and knows his way through the most recondite hills and hollers where the killer may be hiding. Coal tycoon Murvil Knox, who seems to have a vested interest in steering the investigation a certain way. Backwoods drug dealer “Fuckin’ Barney,” who seems to know who killed Nonnie but is reluctant to talk to Mick. Barney’s boss, Detroit kingpin Charley Flowers, who sends two henchmen to take care of Mick. And finally, to complicate the mystery further, there is young Tanner Curtis, who some suspect killed Nonnie and who’s always been an outsider in this close-knit community on account of having been adopted as a child.
The Killing Hills displays Offutt’s keen ear for naturalistic dialogue and eye for observation, whether it is regional idiosyncrasies, the nervous tics of a character being interrogated by Mick, or the precise detail about local flora that helps readers situate themselves. It is in calculated gestures such as Mick regularly introducing himself as “Jimmy Hardin’s boy” to elicit recognition and familiarity that help Offutt transport us to a mountain milieu where clan and kin are more important than concepts like guilt or innocence, a land where the law that prevails is not necessarily the one that has been codified on paper. In the author’s distinctive style, eastern Kentucky and its deceptively-tranquil hills and hollers become much more than a backdrop to the story, casting an ominous shadow that often seems to shape the characters’ personalities and actions.
Although this is the first Offutt novel that could be properly classified as crime fiction, its action and taut prose paying homage to masters of the genre like Jim Thompson, what differentiates The Killing Hills from most thrillers is its skillful combination of a fast-paced story and solid characterizations with a good measure of plot twists. With a protagonist who seems infallible when it comes to feats of physical prowess but who is humanized by the turmoil of his personal affairs, this could be the beginning of a series of rural crime novels or simply one more piece in the eastern Kentucky literary mosaic Offutt has been building since his outstanding debut short story collection, Kentucky Straight (1992).
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza