Chris Offutt introduced military investigator Mick Hardin in his previous book The Killing Hills. That book had Hardin home from leave in the rural Kentucky community of Rocksalt where everybody knows him and his sister Linda is the acting Sherriff. Shifty’s Boys is the follow up and finds Hardin back in Rocksalt and living with his sister as he recovers from an injury to his leg incurred when an IED killed many in his squad. But you can’t keep a good investigator down and soon he is investigating the murder of a local drug dealer.
Hardin agrees to investigate Barney’s death at the insistence of his mother Shifty, an old woman who once dated Hardin’s father. Shifty does not believe that her son Barney was killed in a drug deal gone wrong and it does not take Mick long to find some issues with that version of events. In the meantime his sister is campaigning to be elected as Sherriff, making Mick’s job both easier (he is deputised for a while) and trickier (when he needs to do something illegal). The investigation builds up to a very American climax that has Mick digging into his other set of skills as a soldier. Some readers may baulk at the use of violence to solve some of the more intractable issues but Offutt handles those action scenes well and allows Hardin time to reflect on his actions.
Much of the pleasure in reading Shifty’s Boys is in the detail Offutt brings to the community of Rocksalt. Offutt brings the town – its characters, its history its environment and its wildlife – vividly to life in a way that makes some of the final reveals hit harder. Mick himself is a bit of a classic character who rides into town, agrees to solve a problem because it is the right thing to do and has an armoury of both mental and physical skills to back him up. A little bit of Jack Reacher-style but less of a drifter and with a more defined community to protect.
Much like the current wave of Australian outback noir, there is plenty of room in the US for small town-based crime fiction. Shifty’s Boys is an atmospheric and enjoyable crime novel with a strong central character and a great sense of place. If there is a third Hardin book it may well be set in Rocksalt but, given Hardin works for the US army, Offutt has left the door open to send him anywhere.