Critically acclaimed and popular novels by the likes of Jane Harper and Chris Hammer have seen the rise of outback noir on bookstores’ shelves – both in Australia and overseas. It’s so weird to admit this now but until about 2014/15 I didn’t read Australian novels. Particularly not crime fiction or thrillers. I used to say it was because I read to escape and I didn’t want to read about baddies running around the streets of my state capital, Brisbane or back alleys in inner-city Sydney or Melbourne.
That changed at some point (I probably should check when and why) and now I read A LOT of Australian authors, whether their work is set overseas or here in Australia.
Cutters End is Margaret Hickey’s debut novel and is set in South Australia. Its sense of place and the gritty and parched feel of the outback is central to the tone of the novel and is something Hickey manages to sustain throughout.
by Margaret Hickey
Published by PRH AU Bantam Australia
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: Crime Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
New Year’s Eve, 1989. Eighteen-year-old Ingrid Mathers is hitchhiking her way to Alice Springs. Bored, hungover and separated from her friend Joanne, she accepts a lift to the remote town of Cutters End.
July 2021. Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is seconded to a recently reopened case, one in which he has a personal connection. Three decades ago, a burnt and broken body was discovered in scrub off the Stuart Highway, 300km south of Cutters End. Though ultimately ruled an accidental death, many people - including a high-profile celebrity - are convinced it was murder.
When Mark’s interviews with the witnesses in the old case files go nowhere, he has no choice but to make the long journey up the highway to Cutters End.
And with the help of local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, he soon learns that this death isn’t the only unsolved case that hangs over the town...
This opens with a particularly confronting and compelling prologue. That of a dying woman… more specifically, of someone left to die and Hickey does a great job at imbuing in us, her sense of helplessness.
We then move into the past and are introduced to Ingrid, a young woman who’s hitchhiking to a place called Cutters End where she and her friend are planning to greet the new year and a new decade… the 1990s. We of course have read the prologue, so we can only guess (or assume!) what comes next.
We don’t spend much time in in the late past and leap forward to the present (well, late 2021 as I’m assuming Hickey had hoped Covid would be behind us as it’s referenced as being in the past) to meet Mark.
I liked Mark and we’re privy to his inner thoughts about this case and about the way girls and women are treated. He even ponders his past actions and wonders if he’s been misogynistic or acted inappropriately without realising at the time.
I liked the insight Hickey provides into his relationship with his wife though it seemed a little inconsistent. I’m not entirely sure (for example) he even spoke to his wife before agreeing to become involved in the cold case – which was only problematic as he is on leave and supposedly taking lead responsibility for their kids during that time. We’re told there’s some distrust after infidelity but later, the pair congenially discuss their work days and intricacies of their cases with no sign of tension. Hickey (well, Mark) touches on his wife’s superior earning power and implies he’s been led into a life he wasn’t sure he wanted. I just couldn’t quite work it out. Having said that of course, that may well be how relationships play out – becoming amicable friendships with minimal connection or intimacy.
I probably would have also liked to have gotten to know Jagdeep a little better as she seemed quite a savvy copper, though realise her backstory wasn’t really relevant, when of course Mark’s (having known Ingrid and Joanne when young) is pivotal to the case.
This is an atmospheric read. Hickey does a great job of planting us in outback and rural communities and there was an authentic feel to the narrative when visiting Cutters End and surrounds, interviewing long term residents and recent-visitors.
There are ultimately a few mysteries on offer here and Hickey throws in several twists. And of course, amidst all of that Mark’s conscience is tested as he’s meant to uphold the law while also balancing right vs wrong and his own moral compass.
Cutters End by Margaret Hickey was published in Australia by Bantam (Penguin) and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.