cover image Only Killers and Thieves

Only Killers and Thieves

Paul Howarth. Harper, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-269096-8

A quest for frontier justice drives the events of Howarth’s devastating and impressive debut, set in the Australian outback in 1885. Sixteen-year-old Billy McBride and his 14-year-old brother, Tommy, are orphaned when, they believe, their rancher father’s disgruntled aboriginal stockman guns down their parents and younger sister in cold blood. Enlisting the help of neighboring rancher John Sullivan (with whom their father had a prickly relationship) and Edmund Noone, an inspector with the Native Mounted Police, the boys embark on a manhunt. Things quickly go awry when their confederates use evidence Billy fabricated as a pretext to slaughter the alleged culprit’s entire tribe. This atrocity is emblematic of the novel’s theme concerning the strained relations between white settlers and the natives whom they have displaced from their lands. Howarth skillfully uses the fraying relationship between the two brothers—Billy embraces vigilantism with vengeful zeal, while Tommy is revolted by both the carnage and its effect on his brother—to illustrate the moral issues at the heart of his story. The narrative is empowered further by his searing descriptions of the outback, a drought-ridden landscape of desiccation and death that provides a backdrop as bleak and merciless as the characters who move against it. (Feb.)