Written by Brian Panowich — This atmospheric debut novel set in Georgia begins with an act of fratricide that apparently sets off a chain of violent events over the following decades. It’s 1949 and brothers Rye and Cooper Burroughs are arguing over a proposal to sell the struggling family’s logging rights on Bull Mountain. Cooper settles the matter for good on a hunting trip, and the Burroughs family maintains its isolation while building up its criminal empire.
When the story switches to 2015, Cooper’s grandsons are not on speaking terms but haven’t killed each other yet. Halford Burroughs is a giant of a man, a self-proclaimed hillbilly who’s got rich off meth and has a private army on the impenetrable mountain he regards as his own. Clayton Burroughs, his younger brother, is the sheriff of Waymore Valley, North Georgia and the black sheep of this criminal family. He’s a recovering alcoholic who’s hoping to start a family with his wife, Kate, though he’s dogged by his Burroughs name and suspicions about his allegiance.
It could almost be an idyllic existence on the mountain, if it weren’t for the violent family that has taken possession. The terrain and geography have made them almost untouchable, and the clan has stuck to its traditions. Moonshine may have been replaced by methamphetamine as a source of illegal income from across state lines, but these characters still drink this alcoholic concoction and chew on tobacco. Their Southern intonation leaps off the page when a character refers to his father as ‘Deddy’.
This Southern noir novel moves easily between different time frames, so we see the effect of the sins of the father. The violence is stark and will make you flinch, though it serves a purpose. The acts of cruelty and intimidation committed by Cooper in the 1950s are witnessed by his son, Gareth. Just as Gareth becomes brutalised, so he passes on the same lessons to his children. Clayton’s haunted by memories of what he witnessed, particularly the occasion when a family enemy was burned alive by Halford, who compares his actions to snuffing out a hornet’s nest.
When the story returns to 2015, Panowich stirs up a hornet’s nest of his own with the introduction of a federal agent, Simon Holly. He convinces Clayton that he can protect the Burroughs family from an all-out attack by the authorities if Halford retires from organised crime. The sheriff’s near-impossible task is to persuade his older brother to quit crime and give up the boss of a Florida biker gang, which has a 40-year association with the Burroughs family involving drugs and guns. Panowich then takes us back to the 70s, when the hillbilly clan hooked up with the Hell’s Angels, in this case a club called the Jacksonville Jackals.
Bull Mountain is barely 300 pages, yet Panowich has managed to create a rich family saga with a relentless narrative of enmities, violence and intrigue that’s never less than compelling. The novel also pulls off a remarkable twist that’s conveyed in captivating prose by this debut author, who’s also worked as a musician and fire fighter. He’s created a likeable hero in Clayton Burroughs, a lawman with demons, who has to cope with the evil unleashed by his grandfather almost seven decades earlier. Crucially, all the characters are well drawn – Kate is a particularly strong presence in this novel.
Bull Mountain is brutal and heartbreaking, and it arrives with advance praise from James Ellroy, CJ Box and John Connolly. The book has already elevated Brian Panowich into the top flight of Southern noir alongside authors such as Wiley Cash, Nic Pizzolatto and James Lee Burke. It’s hard to imagine a better debut crime novel being published this year.
Read our introduction to Southern noir here.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 5 Stars