Murder Comes to the Holler in Chris Offutt’s ‘Killing Hills’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Killing Hills

By Chris Offutt

Grove Press

245 pages

 

An old man goes out scavenging for ginseng in the rugged hills of eastern Kentucky and stumbles upon the body of a local woman. Thus begins The Killing Hills, Chris Offutt’s new novel, set like so much of his work in the remote enclaves of Appalachia.

 

Mick Hardin, a military homicide investigator on leave from government service, has come home to try and salvage a failing marriage. He agrees to take part in the murder investigation led by his sister Linda, recently promoted to sheriff of Rocksalt.

 

From there, the body count quickly escalates.

 

Is the killer Curtis Tanner, arrested by an FBI agent on a tip called in by a local politician? Or is the perpetrator one of the many brothers of the victim, whose mother helps oversee a local drug-running operation that traces back to organized crime in Detroit?
 

Told in unadorned prose, The Killing Hills is a tribute to one man’s incorruptible quest for justice and also an elegy for a vanishing way of life. In small towns like Rocksalt, everyone knows everyone else’s business—not always a good thing—and as Hardin’s unofficial inquiry gathers steam, it becomes clear the murder of Nonnie Johnson is intertwined with slash-and-burn rural politics and the misdeeds of some truly bad individuals.

 

 

Offutt is something of a poet laureate of the Kentucky hills. He knows the landscape in and out, and some of the best descriptive writing in this novel captures the feel of that countryside, hollers, broken-down houses, and all:


“Wind and weather had stripped the old tarpaper roof to shreds. Someone had set a washtub over the chimney, but the bottom had rusted through and the metal loop sat like a giant wedding ring around the mortared rock. A copperhead sunned itself at the edge of the shade as if too weary to go any farther. Mick nodded to the snake, which flicked its tongue toward the human scent.”
 

Hardin is a compelling, if troubled, protagonist. Serving in Army CID, he’s often overseas for months at a time. Back in Kentucky, he finds a pregnant wife and some painful questions about the soon-to-be-born child’s paternity. And he’s trying hard to assist his sister Linda in what escalates into a multi-homicide investigation. 

 

Hardin covers a lot of ground—both figuratively and metaphorically—in a novel whose timeframe is a matter of a few days.

 

At times, it feels as though some depth of character was sacrificed in the interests of moving the story along. More could have been done, for example, with Vernon and Freddie, the “Detroit Muscle,” called in to surreptitiously observe the ongoing murder investigation. Hardin rather too quickly eliminates the threat posed by these men, leaving the reader to wonder: What if the two thugs had been a little smarter and more resourceful?

Hardin’s internal struggle with both his wife and what’s become of the holler help enrich the story. Soon after learning about her affair, he stands outside his pickup truck and ruminates on the damage inflicted on his marriage. Then he turns to a discarded engine block in the bed of his truck:


 


 

“Under the bench seat, he found a heavy crescent wrench rusted tight at the knurl. He lowered the gate again and beat on the Ford engine block in the bed, striking it over and over until his arm hurt and his shoulder ached. The jaw of the wrench broke from impact and flew across the dirt lot. He climbed into the back of the truck, crouched behind the engine, and pushed. His legs quivered with the effort. He felt the strain in his arms and his back. The engine scooted along the metal with a terrible sound, gouging furrows in the bed and the gate. With a final effort, he pushed it off the truck, the momentum carrying him with it. He landed on top of the engine, his body draped over it like cloth. He wanted to cry but didn’t know how. It was a like a switch hidden inside him, out of reach.”

A blunt, plainspoken man, Mick Hardin can only express his emotions through physical actions like this.

 

The Killing Hills doesn’t pack the same punch as the author’s previous novel, Country Dark, named one of my top books of 2018. But for mastery of place and plot, Chris Offutt’s work is always worth reading. 

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic. His new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, will be published in 2022.  

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Pikist (Creative Commons)                 

--Grove Press

--Pixabay (Creative Commons)

 

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