Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth

Review published on June 11, 2018.

Central Queensland, Australia, 1885: Drought, poverty, isolation and malnourished livestock all combine to make life practically unliveable for the McBride family. Fourteen-year-old Tommy McBride and his older brother, sixteen-year-old Billy, venture out into the ruined scrubland looking for food for the family, while their harried mother and younger sister Mary attempt to keep things ticking over at home and their father battles both alcoholism and the slow failure of his farm.

One day, the boys stray onto the land of their neighbour, John Sullivan, the richest man in the district and their father’s former boss, and witness the feared Queensland Native Police as they mete out their own brutal brand of justice to a couple of Indigenous Australians. Shaken by what they see, Tommy and Billy attempt to hide, only to be spotted by the menacing Inspector Noone and questioned by Sullivan. The brothers are allowed to return home, but despite the violence that they have witnessed, they are little prepared for what is still to come.

Sometime later, they discover their mother and father have been murdered and their sister pretty much left for dead. When the scant evidence points to the guilt of their former worker, the brothers have no one to turn to for help but Sullivan, and so begins a blood-soaked quest for vengeance that will destroy lives, taint the very fabric of the country and haunt Tommy McBride for the rest of his life.

Only Killers and Thieves is the first novel by Paul Howarth and it is an astounding debut. The writing is by turns savage and poetic, powerful and tender. The landscape of Central Queensland forms the perfect backdrop for a story about depravation, brutality and human folly, with the harsh, barren terrain becoming almost a character in its own right. Life in the outback is extremely hard, and so are most of the people who live there. With their lives and their livelihoods being so precarious, everyone is out for what they can get and violence is an everyday occurrence, particularly when it is directed against the native population.

The Native Police are tasked with the “dispersal” of the Indigenous Australians, which of course really means brutalising and frequently killing them so long as even the vaguest justification for their actions can be found. The majority of the white Australians seem to view their Indigenous countrymen as something nearer to animals than people, and even those who do not actively participate in violent acts seem happy to exploit their native workers and allow the persecution to continue. Inspector Noone leads a particularly ferocious posse of Native Police – he is cruel, calculating and something of an enigma – but is he really the principal villain of Only Killers and Thieves? Noone is certainly willing to accompany Tommy and Billy on their quest for “justice”, but it is John Sullivan who actually convinces everyone of the need to track down the suspected killer in such a way.

There’s no getting away from the fact that most of the people featured in Only Killers and Thieves are awful, callous individuals who are willing to seize any opportunity to inflict pain on the natives (and sometimes even on each other), but the characters are all so well-crafted that reading about their exploits is always compelling, even when it is harrowing. There are no heroes as such, although brothers Billy and Tommy are the more human faces of the posse. Billy McBride is quick to succumb to his grief and happy to have someone to blame, his feelings are understandable but his actions indefensible, while Tommy is an engaging and sympathetic character who sees more and questions more than those around him, although he is still not an innocent.

Only Killers and Thieves is a frequently heartbreaking book, but it still features glimpses of beauty and hope. The instances of bigotry, racism and brutality are deeply upsetting, although they are always in keeping with both the story and real history of the “dispersal” of Indigenous Australians during the period in question. Given the subject matter and the frank descriptions of violence, it’s perhaps a difficult book to “enjoy” reading, but it is certainly a fantastically good book, and one that is likely to feature prominently on “Best Books of 2018” lists.

Erin Britton 5/5

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
One 9781911590033 hbk Jun 2018

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