A British author’s debut novel brings echoes of the American Wild West to the Australian outback.
Up next on the reading queue is the debut novel from Paul Howarth, Only Killers and Thieves, a family saga of revenge set in colonial Australia’s equivalent to the Old West, the unforgiving outback.
Only Killers and Thieves was released earlier this week by publisher Harper/HarperCollins, and it’s already garnered some impressive critical praise. The Library Journal compares it to Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses in a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it a “devastating and impressive debut,” and in its starred review of the book, Kirkus Reviews deploys an adverb that’s always promising when used to characterize how a writer describes brutal subject matter: “unflinchingly.” Laird Hunt, author of The Evening Road, makes a McCarthy comparison, too, saying the book’s characters would be at home in Blood Meridian.
The book begins in 1885, with the McBride family nearing ruination on their drought-stricken land. After the rain finally comes, two brothers, 14-year-old Tommy and 16-year-old Billy, return from swimming in a remote waterhole to discover tragedy. They set out for vengeance with the ruthless landowner who once employed their father, gathering a posse with members of the infamous Queensland Native Police in pursuit of the Aboriginal former employee they believe to be responsible.
In a “behind the book” note included in the PR material HarperCollins sent with a copy of the novel, Howarth says he was inspired when he read about the Queensland Native Police, a branch of law enforcement tasked with “dispersing” Australia’s Aboriginal people from white land, “across an ever-expanding frontier” — an attitude toward Indigenous people that’s all too familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history. After years of living in Australia and traveling across the country, Howarth set out to explore how a child could grow up “good” in such a brutal time and place.
All characters in the book are fictional, but the setting brings to mind our April 2016 story on Australian cattle king Sidney Kidman.