Move over Jane Harper, and make room Lyn Yeowart, there is a new female writer of Australian outback rural crime noir, Margaret Hickey, and her debut novel Cutters End (Penguin Random House 2021) is as gritty, suspenseful and page-turning as any devoted crime reader could wish for.
Hickey previously published Rural Dreams, a collection of short stories set in remote locations, and this novel cements her skill in writing the evocative setting of the dry, regional outback, and proves she can produce a tense and gripping novel-length work as well as poignant short stories.
Cutters End combines a few of the Aussie outback’s favourite sinister themes: the isolated roadhouse, the frisson of fear associated with hitchhiking, and the mystery of cold cases and long-unsolved crimes. Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is dispatched to re-investigate a grisly murder on the Stuart Highway three decades ago; his personal link with some of the witnesses make him the perfect person for the job. But how well did he really know his friends of so long ago? How much of the truth was known? Will his connections help or hinder his involvement with the case? When he begins to dig deeper, with the assistance of local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, he learns that there may be more than one sinister crime looming over the town of Cutters End.
Set in the twin timelines of 1989 and 2021, in the dry and remote land in northern South Australia on the way to Alice Springs, this novel will appeal to anyone who loves Chris Hammer and other male writers who have traditionally dominated this genre, now making way for the aforementioned women authors who are giving us novels that are equally as grisly, as immersive, as fast-moving and enthralling. Of course there’s room for everyone but it’s great to see female writers really packing a punch in outback thriller narratives.
I absolutely adored this novel. It was a compelling read from beginning to end. The characters are rich, well-crafted and relatable, and I can easily see some returning in sequel books. The setting is the champion and the heart of this story, and Hickey’s skill at replicating that particular feeling of outback Australia is extraordinary. The plot is page-turning and full of twists and turns, red herrings, a large cast of potential victims and suspects and the possibility of unreliable narrators. And it is the themes explored in this book – female agency, the risks and dangers of hitchhiking, domestic violence, the backpacker culture, the very real fears specific to women, the complex nature of marriage and relationships, ambition, the (imagined) invincibility of young people, reputations in small towns, mental health, and the legacy of unresolved trauma – all of these layered and complex issues are touched upon subtly and with great sensitivity and restraint. The narrative – the story or the plot itself – is the hero, but underneath it swarms so many timely and confronting themes. The book has some surprising anti-stereotypes which are refreshing. And the quality of the writing makes this feel less like a debut and more like a novel from an author already established in the genre. Margaret Hickey is one to watch.