Only Killers and Thieves
It’s 1885 and Tommy McBride and his big brother Billy live with their parents on a hardscrabble cattle ranch in Central Queensland: “Two boys, not quite men, tiny in a landscape withered by drought.” The ranch is failing, and the boys blame Dad – worn down with bad luck and drink, especially compared with Sullivan, the more prosperous squatter-baron up the road.
When Tommy and Billy return home one day to find their parents brutally slaughtered, the blame is placed on a local Aboriginal group. At Sullivan’s behest, an old-West-style posse assembles to track down the killers, led by Inspector Noone, an officer in the Queensland Native Police, the paramilitary force behind untold numbers of atrocities against the Indigenous people of Queensland. Noone is hell-bent on a “dispersal” – a euphemism for the ethnic cleansing of people on their traditional lands to consolidate colonial power.
Only Killers and Thieves is fiction, based on the historical facts of dispersals, genocide and terrorism during the frontier wars – a shameful chapter of our shared history. These stories deserve to be told, and told again. The question is whether debut novelist Paul Howarth – who grew up in Britain and lived in Australia for six years – is one to tell them.
With long, fire-and-brimstone run-on sentences and a thematic obsession with intrinsic evil, comparisons could be made to Cormac McCarthy, and that might be apt, if McCarthy had learnt about the concepts of good and evil from those flashcards developmental specialists use to teach facial expressions to children. The posse comprises stock characters: Sullivan, the clammy vulgarian; a cruel but cowardly overseer; several taciturn mercenaries; and Tommy and Billy, two naive boys on the cusp of manhood who will self-actualise through the course of the gunplay.
Overseeing them is Noone – educated, erudite, brutal, Kurtzean – a man who quotes Milton as his men rape and slaughter their way across Queensland. The only thing he likes more than murder is expository monologue, recounted over pages and pages.
Weakness in characterisation aside, the novel conjures the brutality of the colonial frontier with aplomb. Less sophisticated is the depiction of Indigenous men and women, despite the best intentions of the author. Readers attuned to Aboriginal traditions will likely find much to fault in this Western-tinged grisly page-turner. ZC
Pushkin, 416pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Paul Howarth, Only Killers and Thieves". Subscribe here.