Only Killers and Thieves, Paul Howarth

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Right from the opening pages ONLY KILLERS AND THIEVES is brutal. Transporting readers to colonial Australia, this is a book that will should make you ponder how we got to be where we are. In the main this is a story about brutal people, doing unspeakable things - to Indigenous people, animals, and each other along the way. There's a ruthlessness portrayed here that's going to make you stop reading, to stare off into the distance. In fact the overwhelming feeling I came away from this book with was one of profound distress. At the brutality, at the carelessness, at the way that we seem to have taken to heart that cruelty and perpetuated it down the generations to where we are now. In a country that seemingly doesn't give a rats about the environment that has tried its hardest to sustain us; about our Indigenous population and the massive injustice done to them; that worships money, and ignores the corruption endemic in ensuring that some people have all the money, and others can simply go to hell.

Set in outback Australia in 1885, this is the story of opposites. The wealthy, influential squatter, successful farmer, even in times of drought, unsuccessful family man; and his neighbours, a small family struggling in the drought to remain viable, a close group of 2 boys, their young sister, mother and father, this family knows to keep away from their wealthy, nasty, (water stealing) neighbour John Sullivan. The boys, unfortunately, don't quite know the full story of why, but the discovery of their dead parents, and gravely injured sister, sees them turn to their neighbour for help, away from the Aboriginal stockman who has worked for them for years, as he's blamed for the massacre of their family. This triggers yet another murderous rampage by Sullivan and Inspector Edmund Noone of the Queensland Native Police.

Needless to say the boys are young, impressionable, and each of them reacts to the events of that deadly pursuit in their own way, each of them carries the outcomes of it in very different ways for the rest of their lives. It's a brutal, awful, horrific story, told in a beautiful manner. Confronting reading undoubtedly and some may find themselves physically affected by the tableau's drawn in vivid, clear, uncomfortable detail.

ONLY KILLERS AND THIEVES is an example of how crime fiction can be used to peel back the layers and analyse the darkness at the core of humanity, and it's hard to avoid the important point that white Australian's need to do some hard thinking about their attitudes to where we came from, how we colonised this country and exactly what we think we're achieving by ignoring lessons from the past.

Year of Publication

Two brothers are exposed to the brutal realities of life and the seductive cruelty of power in this riveting debut novel—a story of savagery and race, injustice and honor, set in the untamed frontier of 1880s Australia—reminiscent of Philipp Meyer’s The Son and the novels of Cormac McCarthy.

An epic tale of revenge and survival, Only Killers and Thieves is a gripping and utterly transporting debut, bringing to vivid life a colonial Australia that bears a striking resemblance to the American Wild West in its formative years.

It is 1885, and a crippling drought threatens to ruin the McBride family. Their land is parched, their cattle starving. When the rain finally comes, it is a miracle that renews their hope for survival. But returning home from an afternoon swimming at a remote waterhole filled by the downpour, fourteen-year-old Tommy and sixteen-year-old Billy meet with a shocking tragedy.

Thirsting for vengeance against the man they believe has wronged them—their former Aboriginal stockman—the distraught brothers turn to the ruthless and cunning John Sullivan, the wealthiest landowner in the region and their father’s former employer. Sullivan gathers a posse led by the dangerous and fascinating Inspector Edmund Noone and his Queensland Native Police, an infamous arm of British colonial power charged with the "dispersal" of indigenous Australians to "protect" white settler rights. As they ride across the barren outback in pursuit, their harsh and horrifying journey will have a devastating impact on Tommy, tormenting him for the rest of his life—and will hold enduring consequences for a young country struggling to come into its own.

Recreating a period of Australian and British history as evocative and violent as the American frontier era, Only Killers and Thievesis an unforgettable story of family, guilt, empire, race, manhood, and faith that combines the insightfulness of Philipp Meyer’s The Son, the atmospheric beauty of Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, and the raw storytelling power of Ian McGuire’s The North Water.

Review Only Killers and Thieves, Paul Howarth
Karen Chisholm
Thursday, June 6, 2019

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