BookBrowse Reviews The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

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The Killing Hills

by Chris Offutt

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt X
The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 240 pages

    Jun 2022, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
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About this Book



A cinematic, slow-burn detective noir in which borderline anti-hero Mick Hardin endeavors to track down a killer.

The personified hills of the novel's title foreshadow the mood of this brooding and ominous tale. Infused with colorful local lore, the story's backdrop is the hills and hollows ("hollers") of rural Kentucky, where the law — represented by protagonist Mick Hardin's sister Linda — exists alongside lawlessness, embodied by a cast of immediately recognizable archetypes.

In standard noir tradition, Chris Offutt's narrative commences with the discovery of a female murder victim: While out roaming the hollers, septuagenarian and former janitor Mr. Tucker stumbles across the corpse of 46-year-old widow Veronica "Nonnie" Johnson. The crime scene is noted as a "pretty place to die." The natural beauty of the surroundings juxtaposes sharply with the horror of the violated corpse.

Enter Mick Hardin. Not quite the outsider of traditional noir tropes, Hardin is nevertheless an outcast of sorts. Having left the parochial confines of east Kentucky 14 years earlier to pursue an army career, this combat veteran and homicide specialist has now returned to his native hollers. He has a specific mission in mind: to sort out his prickly relationship with his estranged wife Peggy, who is pregnant with another man's child. In the reader's first encounter with Hardin, Offutt succinctly paints an evocative picture of a troubled and hard-drinking soul. He wakes up in the woods near his late grandfather's cabin with two empty whiskey bottles as bed-fellows. This is all the detail the reader requires to become acquainted with both protagonist and circumstance. Offutt's judicious selection of detail sets the scene for the terse and incisive prose that pervades the novel as a whole, subtly revealing the real star of the show — Kentucky.

Misogyny comes to the fore when, newly appointed as the town's first female sheriff, Linda enlists the assistance of her brother in her quest to identify Nonnie's killer. Linda must outwit the FBI in a bid to be taken seriously within her role. Hardin is Linda's ideal accomplice — someone who is not only trained in investigating homicides but is a native of the hollers and conversant in the argot of the locals. Linda also meets these criteria. However, she has one characteristic that works against her: her gender. She knows that the case can make or break her career; she is not only facing sexist bias but must also contend with the guardedness of the community. Offutt seamlessly integrates these prejudices into the fabric of his prose.

The subcurrent of this novel is its sensory congregation of detail, not least the vivid descriptions of flora and fauna peculiar to the locale. And Offutt astutely captures the regional attributes of the characters, depicted in their appearance, dialect and mannerisms. The wariness of the denizens of the hollers shows their mistrust and clannism. Coal tycoon Murvill Knox — "slippery as chopped watermelon" — is easily imagined as the unprincipled, small-town bigwig. The ensemble who form the line-up of suspects (from obligatory patsy "Dopted Boy" to "Fuckin' Barney" — even his mother calls him this!) seem to grow organically from the hillsides. And the economic paucity is palpable. Throughout this novel, Offutt paints a credible picture of a "pretty place with a rough history," creating a believable framework for his narrative.

As a detective novel, The Killing Hills gradually delivers its promised thrills. Nevertheless, the plot is unremarkable and arguably formulaic. As for the noir aspect, the genre has been so ubiquitous over the past decade or so that one could be forgiven for thinking that all the flavor has been well and truly chewed out of this particular piece of gum. But Offutt breathes fresh life into these established genres. This is primarily achieved through the visceral concentration of demographic knowledge and forensic understanding of the hollers' inhabitants. The author subtly scrutinizes the "eye for an eye" value system along with dismissive cultural attitudes about women. He also chooses to subvert traditional female stereotypes: Linda, despite seeking her brother's help, is clearly able to hold her own; Peggy takes charge of her life in the absence of her husband; and even the victim turns out to have played a role in her destiny. Light relief is thrown into the mix with occasional humor. One character, for example, refers to California as a place where "all those serial killers and vegetarians" reside, unwittingly revealing something of the hollers' societal mindset.

This is a novel with wide-ranging appeal. Fans of detective fiction will enjoy the author's skillful handling of the form, while noir aficionados will find something satisfyingly new here. Ultimately, Offutt is serving up both a love letter to and affectionate critique of the Kentucky hollers.

Reviewed by Amanda Ellison

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2021, and has been updated for the July 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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