Margaret Hickey’s first book, Rural Dreams was a collection of short stories set in rural Australia. In her debut novel, Cutters End, Hickey turns to the more nightmarish side of rural Australia and in particular the dangers of hitchhiking. In doing so, she takes readers deep into the heart of rural South Australia, the roadhouses and the stretches of empty road between fading towns.
Cutters End starts with a bit of a bait and switch. The prologue is of a woman, tried to a tree, desperately carving her name in an attempt to be remembered. But when the main narrative opens it is to Detective Mark Ariti, tasked with re-examining a cold case involving the death of Michael Denby, a pillar of the community of Cutters End. Mark is brought in partly because one of the potential witnesses is an ex-girlfriend of his from his school days in the rural town of Booralama. His investigations finally take him to the fading, former opal centre of Cutters End, where he connects with local policewoman Jagdeep Kaur and slowly they unearth the past, finding more about the case than they bargained for.
South Australia has emerged into the Australian rural crime scene through Garry Disher’s Hirschhausen series (starting with Bitter Wash Road). While Disher’s books sit more in the agricultural heartland of South Australia, Hickey’s view is even more remote – focussing on the isolated roadhouses, the lonely highways and the far flung towns.
Cutters End is a well-constructed procedural with, given the prologue, an always looming twist to the narrative. And while there may be a few too many coincidences, Hickey sells them well. The very real dangers of hitchhiking in Australia that came to light in the late 1980s and early 90s through the Ivan Milat case provide a dark backdrop to the story. And although this premise has already been used for horror (eg Wolf Creek), the procedural allows for a more nuanced exploration of the issue. Through the unfolding mystery, driven by a likeable, flawed protagonist, Hickey has delivered an engaging rural noir debut.