Following on from The Killing Hills and Shifty’s Boys, Mick Hardin is once again back home in Kentucky. The one-time US Army investigator is now discharged, recently divorced and, despite the familiarity of his hometown, suffering that subtle rootless confusion that affects a man when he goes back to civilian life after 20 years in the services. His return coincides with the re-election of his sister, Linda, as Rocksalt sheriff and news of a body out in the hills.
Johnny Boy Toliver, an overcautious deputy, reports that Pete Lowe has been found shot in his backyard. His daughter, Janice, discovered him. Lowe was an ornery old man, but the best mechanic in the county, so he was never short of work. Alongside cars, the only thing he loved was chickens.
While the department investigates, Mick, is at a loose end so he agrees to help Toliver with an eviction. Hank Reeder wants his son and daughter-in-law evicted from the chicken shed they have been living in. The wife, Misty, isn’t around, but Mick does catch Roscoe Reeder with a three thousand dollar rooster called Charles, which was given to him for safe-keeping by Lowe.
It turns out Hack Davis had been running a cock-fighting ring and when Mick and Toliver go to interview him they find another corpse, killed by the blast of a shotgun, and a mean rattlesnake locked up in a box. Meanwhile, Linda has driven out to interview Leo Gowan, Lowe’s nearest neighbour. Approaching the house, Linda hears a shotgun blast. She is shot on entering the property and loses consciousness. With Linda in hospital, Toliver becomes the sheriff, and one of his first acts is to deputise Mick.
All of this happens within the first third of Code of the Hills. Previous Mick Hardin novels have progressed at a more leisurely pace but Code, despite being longer than the others, is more of a conventional thriller. This is perhaps most evident in the change we see in Mick after Linda is shot. He goes from a slightly awkward, diffident stranger unsure how well he will adapt to civilian life to a fearless, dangerous hunter on the search for his sister’s shooter. One particular scene, where Mick, out of his element in a bar in Detroit, braces a group of Hill Country ex-pats, is almost a microcosm of the whole book. The violence is all the more shocking for its sudden unpredictability, but also funny in its cartoonish display of machismo. Mick beats almost everybody down, but leaves the bar a celebrity.
The author’s writing is of the highest standard throughout. Chris Offutt has created a fully-developed protagonist, complicated and fascinating, contradictory in some ways, but always believable. At the same time, Hardin is also a cipher; a lens through which we look sympathetically at humanity, in all its confused glory. I think it’s impossible to put down a Hardin book without feeling happier than when it was picked up, no matter what crimes lie inside. They are described as rural noir, but offer a kind of anti-noir – and I mean that as a compliment. I can only think of Mick Herron as providing a similar experience for the reader.
Out of this dramatic beginning, Offutt crafts a literary thriller that takes in cock-fighting, tragic accidents and long-buried secrets. Code of the Hills joins James A McLaughlin’s Panther Gap and Eli Cranor’s Ozark Dogs as one of the standout novels of 2023 so far. All might be broadly characterised as rural American crime but the are very different books.
The book is out in the US and arrives in the UK in September.
Grove Press/No Exit Press
CFL Rating: 5 Stars