‘The Killing Hills’ – Mick Hardin #1 by Chris Offutt

I’ll confess that I was drawn to this book by its cover, especially the way that the old pickup stands out like blood in snow. It offered something different and far outside my personal experience.

As soon as I started the book, I knew I’d made the right choice. I slid straight into the narrative, watching an old man walking a hill in the Kentucky Appalachians in the early morning, searching for ginseng and discovering a body. The text was crisp and low key but I was already intrigued. Why was an eighty-one-year-old man both the oldest man in his community and the only old man he knew? What did that say about mortality rates in his community? Why would a man searching for wild ginseng habitually carry a revolver? And what kind of man has, as his first concern after finding a body, the transplantation of a young ginseng plant to keep it from being trampled by the police that he would soon have to call?

I was barely one page in and already I knew I was somewhere quite different from my normal Brit or US big-city crime fiction environments.

Then I met Mick Hardin, the investigator I knew the book and the series would revolve around and in two paragraphs I had a picture of a solitary man with problems that he was used to trying to cope with on his own:

“Mick Hardin awoke in sections, aware of each body part separate from the rest as if he’d been dismantled. He lay on his arm, dull and tingling from hours of pressure against the earth. He shifted his legs to make sure they worked, then allowed his mind to drift away. A few birds had begun their chorus in the glow of dawn. At least it hadn’t been a bad dream that woke him. Just birds with nothing to do yet.

Later he awakened again, aware of a terrible thirst. The sun had risen high enough to clear the tree line and hurt his eyes. The effort to roll over required a strength that eluded him. He was outside, had slept in the woods, with any luck not too far from his grandfather’s cabin. He pushed himself to a sitting position and groaned at the fierce pain in his skull. His face felt tight as if stretched over a rack. Beside him, three rocks formed a small firepit beside two empty bottles of whiskey. Better the woods than town, he told himself. Better the hills than the desert. Better clay dirt than sand.”

Offutt, Chris. The Killing Hills (Mick Hardin Series) . Oldcastle Books. Kindle Edition.a

I admire Chris Offutt’s easy, engaging storytelling style. It’s vivid and cliché free. It moves at a pace that kept me turning the pages but that felt patient and determined rather than rushed or pressured. He showed me what was going on and left me to draw my own conclusions and to keep up if I could.

The corpse the old man found was the trigger for the action in the book but finding out who the killer was isn’t what the book focuses on.

This is a book about how life works for the people who live in these hills. The investigation into the death is just the framework the story wraps itself around. Mick Hardin grew up in the hills in his grandfather’s remote, simple cabin. Then he’d spent fourteen years in the army, first as a paratrooper then in the Criminal Investigation Division, specializing in homicide. He still has an insider’s knowledge of the hills and the people who live there but he also has a broader experience to compare them to. He’s home on leave, following his grandfather’s death. His sister, who has recently become the local Sheriff, asks him to help her by informally investigating the death of the person found in the hills.

The investigation that follows was far from being a typical police procedural. Mick’s priority isn’t to find the killer but to prevent this killing from triggering a revenge killing that might escalate into a blood feud. His style of investigation draws on a deep knowledge of and respect for the honour code and family loyalties that this community lives by. As Mick puts the pieces together and does his best to prevent anyone else from killing or being killed, the reader gets a description of life in the hills feels real. It’s not sentimental or nostalgic but it is empathetic. It’s an insider’s view that neither approves nor disapproves but accepts things as they are and tries for the best result the circumstances will allow.

By the end of the book, I was a fan of Chris Offutt and keen to read more about Mick Hardin. I’ll be reading, ‘Shifty’s Boys’, the second book in the series, soon.

Chris Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, population 200, a former mining town in the Appalachian hills.

His books include Shifty’s Boys, The Killing HillsCountry Dark, Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods, The Good Brother, The Same River Twice, No Heroes, and My Father the Pornographer.

He wrote and produced scripts for True Blood, Weeds, and Treme.  His television work was nominated for an Emmy.

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