Paul Howarth’s debut Only Killers and Thieves was a confronting Australian-western that had at its centre the massacre of an Aboriginal community in late 19th Century Queensland. The book focussed on two teenagers, Tommy and Billy McBride, brought into this violent world following the deaths of their parents and sister and realising too late that they are pawns in another man’s sadistic mission. The sequel, Dust off the Bones, deals with the much longer term consequences of those events and, in particular, the society that essentially turned a blind eye to the mistreatment of the Aboriginal people that they had dispossessed.
After a brief prologue, Howarth jumps five years after the events of Only Killers and Thieves. Tommy, damaged by his experiences and unable to settle is working on a cattle station but finds himself on the run after a terrible accident. Meanwhile, Billy who still dreams of rebuilding the family farm is bound closer to the evil and psychopathic policeman Noone as he goes on a killing spree to tie up loose ends. Meanwhile, secretly gay lawyer Henry Wells seeks to make a name for himself by bringing those who have killed Aboriginal citizens to justice and stumbles on the story of the massacre of the Kurrong led by Noone who has since moved on to a comfortable position in the police force.
Like its predecessor, Dust off the Bones is unflinching in its exploration of late 19th Century Australia. Besides Noone, who has used his position to explore his psychopathic tendencies, the characters are riven with contradictions. Despite any good they thing they are doing, Tommy and Billy are both still tormented by their upbringing and the events of their youth. Katherine Sullivan, heir to the estate that bordered the McBride land, struggles to be taken seriously in a world dominated by men and to reconcile her love for Billy with what she suspects about his past. And Henry Wells struggles to do the right thing while being forced by social mores to repress his desires.
The Australian Western is making a comeback, particularly at the cinema with films like The Proposition, The Furnace and Sweet Country. These modern westerns are critically reevaluating the way the land was colonised and in particular the impact on Aboriginal communities. Paul Howarth’s duology is firmly in this tradition. While its focus is mainly on white settlers, Howarth is concerned with how those settlers behaved, the society that gave them licence to do what they did and the impact of those actions on people who knew they were doing wrong.
While the first book dealt with the immediacy of a hunt (misguided though it was), the sequel deals with long term consequences of violence. And in particular, it revolves around a common trope of Westerns – the inability to ever outrun your sins, or that eventually an evil past will catch up with you. So that despite its long time jumps (nine years at one point), Dust off the Bones remains tense and engaging throughout as it builds inexorably to its final bloody confrontations.