Book review: Honor code hampers hunt for killer in ‘The Killing Hills’

Chris Offutt is the author of "The Killing Hills." (Courtesy of Grove Press)
Chris Offutt is the author of "The Killing Hills." (Courtesy of Grove Press)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Chris Offutt visits familiar Appalachian territory in third novel set in eastern Kentucky

The life span in Rocksalt, Kentucky, is on a downhill trend due in part to a long-running chain reaction of violent acts in Chris Offutt’s third novel, “The Killing Hills.” There’s a logic to the violence, though, a quid pro quo pattern of wrongs righted and retribution doled out between clans across generations. Mick Hardin’s attempt to stem the tide of revenge killing is the engine that drives this fast-paced crime story set in the remote hills and hollers of the Appalachian Mountains.

On the surface, Hardin is the familiar archetype of the taciturn, lone wolf crime buster, but he is a complex hero. The screws of external forces keep turning, applying pressure from all sides. A criminal investigator for the Army based in Germany, Hardin has gone AWOL to sort out his marriage to a woman who may or may not be pregnant with his child. Two mysterious goons are on his tail. He’s trying to kick booze after a nine-day bender. And the sheriff of Rocksalt, who happens to be his sister Linda, has enlisted his help to solve a murder.

Hardin is particularly well-suited to the task. Having been away from his hometown for several years, he has enough emotional distance to take a clear-eyed view of the destructive cycle of violence that has wreaked havoc on the community. But he also understands the local code of conduct that keeps the delicate social fabric of the poor-but-proud community intact. That’s why, for instance, when Hardin drives up to a house to question the occupant, he waits in his truck with the window down until he’s invited on to the porch to talk.

Readers of Offutt’s previous two novels will recognize the setting of “The Killing Hills,” as well as some of the characters. Tucker, the young Korean War veteran at the center of “Country Dark,” appears here as an old man, “the oldest in the community,” whose search for ginseng turns up the dead body of 43-year-old Nonnie Johnson on Choctaw Ridge in the opening chapter.

This is not your typical murder mystery, though. The victim is so thinly sketched, she’s barely a character in the story. The quest to identify her killer and bring him to justice seems almost like a subplot. And the complication presented by a shadowy coal tycoon named Murvill Knox who tries to control the investigation fizzles out pretty quickly.

What’s truly at stake here is Hardin’s noble effort to prevent a domino effect of tit-for-tat killings and the challenges he encounters trying to glean information from tight-lipped mountain men and a pistol-packing mama named Shifty Kissick.

Courtesy of Grove Press
Courtesy of Grove Press

A typical exchange between Hardin and a resident of Rocksalt usually begins with a recap of his lineage, like this encounter with Tucker:

“Hidy, Mr. Tucker, I knowed you in grade school. I’m Mick Hardin. You got time to talk a minute?”

“Ain’t you got a boy looks a lot like you?”

“I am that boy.”

“Jimmy your daddy?”

“Yeah, and my granddaddy was Homer Jack.”

“All right, then.”

The cagey interactions between such distinctly drawn characters is what makes “The Killing Hills” a pleasure to read. The inhabitants of Rocksalt each have their own quirks, but they’re all cut from the same cloth because they’re either related by blood or marriage, or their families have known each other since the beginning of time.

The men of Rocksalt go by nicknames like Beanpole, Little Big Joe, Johnny Boy and (expletive) Barney. They drive Ford F-150s, eat Vienna sausages and drink Ale-8 soda. They’re often armed, accompanied by guard dogs and suspicious of everyone. Most importantly, they do not like the authorities meddling in their affairs. They prefer a DIY approach to justice.

It’s Hardin’s understanding and respect for the flawed people of Rocksalt that gives him the edge in solving the crime. He knows how to work the system by ignoring lesser criminal behavior like drug dealing in order to obtain information pertaining to a greater crime like murder. And he’s willing to exchange favors to keep the score even between clans. Offutt orchestrates a fascinating peek into Appalachian diplomacy. Witnessing Hardin navigate it is supremely satisfying.

Hardin’s other secret power is his intimate knowledge of the land. His hometown has changed a lot since he’s been away. The old courthouse is now a community center, his favorite diner is closed, and a new highway to nowhere has been built. But with the help of 50-year-old topography maps, he’s able to ferret out hideouts that are invisible to modern-day GPS systems.

Speaking of the land, the forested ridges and valleys of Rocksalt are so vividly portrayed, the setting feels as integral to the story as the main characters. The terrain teems with a variety of birds, snakes, squirrels and insects that chirrup and warble in the background like some sort of watchful woodland chorus.

“The surrounding hills were steep enough to skin your nose on climbing, strung by pine and yellowwood clinging to the limestone cliffs. The only sound was a distant cicada and an occasional blue jay irritated by the presence of humans. A squirrel chittered from the first fork of the nearest oak.”

Offutt’s gift for nature writing imbues his tale with a rich sense of majesty that provides a sharp counterpoint to the tragedies that unfold.


“The Killing Hills”

By Chris Offutt

Grove Press

219 pages, $26