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Book reviews: The Killing Hills and The Shadows of Men

Doug Johnstone on a genuinely thrilling country noir novel and a gripping read about two police officers in Calcutta after World War 1.

I’ve said it before here, but snobbishness about genre fiction is entirely misplaced. There are good and bad books in any genre (including literary fiction, just another genre), and the breadth within any single category is astonishing when you dig into it. So it is in my home turf of crime fiction, and this week’s books demonstrate this range in spades.

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt is out now (No Exit, £9.99)

First up we have The Killing Hills by American Chris Offutt.

The author has previously published a mix of fiction and memoir, and this exhilarating slice of country noir clearly draws on real-life experience.

Set in the remote Appalachian hills of Kentucky where Offutt grew up, the story focuses on Mick Hardin, a combat veteran now working as an army CID agent, currently on leave back home.

Hardin’s sister Linda has recently become the local sheriff, and the murder of a woman on a remote hilltop is her first big case. More used to busting meth labs and petty family feuds, Linda enlists Hardin to help, not least because the local families still cling to misogynistic ideas and won’t readily talk to a woman sheriff. 

There is a thriving sub-genre of country noir in America, and this is up there with the best of them. In Hardin, Offutt has created a complex central character, and the author’s close familiarity with his setting gives The Killing Hills a real twang of authenticity.

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The story ramps up as the novel progresses, involving rival families going back generations, big business trying to exploit the natural resources of the area, the FBI stumbling in and getting everyone’s backs up, and two Chicago hitmen dispatched by a drug-dealing crime boss to sweep up a situation getting out of control.

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The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee is out now
(Harvill Secker, £12.99)

Hardin watches all of this with a knowing eye, allowing the author to deal expertly with the nitty-gritty of the investigation, the familial bonds in remote places, and the push and pull between rural and urban, as well as the encroachment of big business on a previously untouched landscape.

It’s genuinely thrilling to read and written with a propulsive momentum, a poet’s eye for the small detail and an expert plotter’s feel for twists and turns that come naturally, rather than bolted on out of the blue. Fantastic stuff.

Abir Mukherjee’s The Shadows of Men is the fifth in the author’s series of historical crime novels set in Calcutta in the wake of World War 1, and he develops his characters and themes with great confidence and assurance.

It focuses on two police officers from the British and Indian communities, Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee. In a departure from previous outings, the story is told from a mix of the two characters’ points of view, reflecting a shift in focus as the novels have progressed.

The complex relationship between Mukherjee’s central characters also reflects the wider cultural and political landscape of a city in turmoil, as Banerjee is first given an undercover job then accused of murdering a Hindu theologian.

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Mukherjee evokes the chaotic atmosphere of his setting wonderfully, and handles his complex plot expertly. Thought-provoking, immersive and gripping in equal measure, this is top-class writing from start to finish.

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