While Old Man Tucker is out collecting ginseng in the hills of eastern Kentucky, he discovers the dead body of local woman Nonnie Johnson. Newly promoted Sheriff Linda Hardin, hoping for a quick resolution to her first murder case, asks her brother, Mick, a military homicide investigator, to help find the killer. So begins Chris Offutt’s The Killing Hills.
A veteran of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mick returned home on personal leave to patch things up with his estranged pregnant wife. But now he’s AWOL and just barely managing to stay one step ahead of the military police. He spends most of his time camping out at his grandfather’s abandoned cabin, hiking the surrounding hills and drinking too much.
Despite having been away from home for more than a decade, Mick’s knowledge of the land and the community is still strong, thanks to his close observation and hard-won intimacies. Traveling from holler to holler, appraising the landscape and gaining the respect of his gun-toting neighbors, Mick is a valuable asset to Linda, who is mired in local politics and saddled with an incompetent assistant with ties to the area’s fading coal industry.
The Killing Hills has all the marks of a classic thriller, but its murder plot is secondary to the Appalachian setting. Offutt’s small-town Kentucky is a place of tightknit families, long-held grudges, chemical dependency and simmering violence. One of Offutt’s strengths is his familiarity with the area’s folkways, flora and people, a trait he shares with Mick and has demonstrated in his previous fiction, memoirs and work as a writer on television dramas such as “True Detective.”
A rural noir with attitude to spare, The Killing Hills moves as briskly as a well-constructed miniseries, right down to its unanswered questions that carry the hopeful possibility of a sequel.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly indicated that Offutt worked on “True Blood,” not “True Detective.”