The story of a frontier family’s murder by a tribe of native peoples and the ensuing quest for vengeance has been written before. It’s a staple of many Western novels. What sets Only Killers and Thieves apart is its locale: not the late 19th-century American West but the untamed wilderness of the Australian outback.
The novel begins innocently enough, with teen brothers Billy and Tommy McBride on a hunting expedition. Debut novelist Paul Howarth entrenches readers in the scene and its grim mood from the opening sentence: “They stalked the ruined scrubland, searching for something to kill.” Later, when the boys discover their parents slain and their young sister, Mary, barely clinging to life, they must swallow their father’s pride and seek help from his nemesis, a deeply racist land baron called John Sullivan.
While Sullivan’s doctor and wife tend to Mary, the teens accompany Sullivan and a posse of Native Queensland police to rout the aboriginal Kurrong tribe believed to be responsible for the McBride murders. Consumed by hate and a lust for revenge, Billy embraces Sullivan’s view of superiority over the land’s native inhabitants, even as the more sensitive Tommy questions everything.
Only Killers and Thieves is brutally violent and shocking, from its depiction of racial bias to its savage realism, but at its heart, it is a coming-of-age novel. Howarth includes many parallels to the novel’s Old West counterparts: a family trying to tame the land and create a livelihood for themselves amid a harsh, unforgiving climate; a rival landowner who threatens to control them at every turn; and the constant threat of attack by the region’s indigenous population. Howarth manages to infuse the old tropes with a depth of emotion and moral complication that will stay with readers long after closing the book.