Only Killers and Thieves

Written by Paul Howarth
Review by Larry Zuckerman

Two Australian teenagers, Billy and Tommy McBride, return to their parents’ cattle ranch one afternoon in 1885 to find their mother and father murdered and younger sister gravely wounded. Suspicion falls on an Aboriginal hired hand who once worked there; his pistol lies in the dirt. A wealthy neighbor who seems to own everyone and everything hires a posse led by Noone, a police officer, and pushes the McBride boys to join. Sixteen-year-old Billy, pigheaded, impetuous, and unwilling to admit a fear or tender feeling, is all for it. But Tommy, nearly fifteen, has his reservations, though he goes along, seeing little choice.

I like how the brothers’ interplay mirrors the terror their acquiescence sets in motion, and Howarth’s prose makes the rocks and drought-ridden scrub speak eloquently of wanton violence, desperation, and isolation. The boys’ characters carry the narrative, but Noone has his moments as a cold-blooded theoretician who thinks he can justify sociopathic behavior as utterly rational. The wealthy neighbor, however, lacks depth, and the Freudian cliché that’s supposed to explain why he’s so intent on throwing his weight around undermines Howarth’s otherwise clear-sighted approach.

The climax is startlingly talky (including Nietzschean speeches by Noone), a contrast to the taut, laconic narrative up to then. But Only Killers and Thieves remains an extraordinary first novel from an author to watch. Howarth has captured the time and place as naturally as breathing, and his narrative proves that a literary story need not lack for tension. One note of caution: The novel lives up to its title, and several scenes demonstrate graphically how men with guns can hold human life very cheap.