Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
I am sometimes asked why I read so much crime when there’s such marvelous “proper fiction” out there. Next time I am asked the question, I will point to this novel.
Bull Mountain is about crime and criminals and the plot includes some of the nastiest crimes I’ve seen put to paper. And it’s so much more, as well. A beautifully written, compelling moral parable. A claustrophobic, tense thriller. A bloody good yarn. A wonderful literary novel in sum which owes a great deal to Faulkner, Dickey and other good old boys famed for lyrical prose about dysfunctional southern clans and harder than hard southern men.
The central conceit is that our protagonist Clayton Burroughs is the black sheep of the family - because he is good. Clayton is the local sheriff, while his numerous brothers and uncles are very much on the wrong side. You name an illegal activity, the Burroughs clan of Bull Mountain, Georgia, has dabbled in it. Drugs, gun-running, prostitution, they’ve done it all. The underworlds around (fictional) Bull Mountain and Jacksonville, Florida, are so beautifully detailed you actually believe characters have names like Old Merle and commit the stupid crimes they do.
In the land of law enforcement, Clayton has achieved a sort of peace with his notorious kinsmen and is a year sober after a lifetime of drinking too much. Peppered with funny, snappy dialogue, his life as a small-town copper in 2015 is believable and the surrounding uber maleness is lightened by the presence of two intelligent women, Clayton’s wife Kate and his assistant Cricket. An early set piece is laugh-out-loud funny, involving, as it does, a F** and S** Sally doll (definitely not the toy you’d give a five year old). The sole shadow is that Clayton and his wife are struggling with fertility issues but otherwise his life is good. Enter Simon Holly, an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent determined to close down the Burroughs’ factories of evil.
Clayton reluctantly agrees to help and act as a go-between for his family and the federal agent – all of this with a view to saving his near (if not especially dear) relatives jail time.
That’s the easy part and it plays out about as well as can be expected.
Then, things begin to get hairy.
Very hairy and extremely bloody.
I mean really bloody. Martin Scorsese would blanch at the shoot-outs and acts of revenge that make up the book’s second act and much of the third.
Despite the gut churning material, the plot never veers to parody. From what we know about the Burroughs, their friends, colleagues and enemies, the horror makes sense. It also propels the plot forward so deftly that the shocker twists genuinely cause the reader to be … well … shocked.
This is a durn good read and I recommend it to all lovers of proper novels and crime novels alike, with the possible exception of those with weak stomachs.
This is Panowich’s first novel and I am very keen to read the second. Not sure he can top this for bloodlust and violence mingled with humor but we shall see.