A desert highway. A remote town. A murder that won’t stay hidden.
New Year’s Eve, 1989. Eighteen-year-old Ingrid Mathers is hitchhiking her way to Alice Springs. Bored, hungover and separated from her friend Joanne, she accepts a lift to the remote town of Cutters End.
July 2021. Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is seconded to a recently reopened case, one in which he has a personal connection. Three decades ago, a burnt and broken body was discovered in scrub off the Stuart Highway, 300km south of Cutters End. Though ultimately ruled an accidental death, many people – including a high-profile celebrity – are convinced it was murder.
When Mark’s interviews with the witnesses in the old case files go nowhere, he has no choice but to make the long journey up the highway to Cutters End.
And with the help of local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, he soon learns that this death isn’t the only unsolved case that hangs over the town…
Set in the South Australian outback, Margaret Hickey’s Cutters End transports us to rural Australia and centres around a suspicious death thirty years earlier. At the time it was ruled an accident, but what really happened along that deserted and dusty highway? Was the death of Michael Denby really an accident?
This novel falls fairly easily into the rural crime and Australian Outback noir genre, and doesn’t stray too far from the stereotypical elements of the space — the flawed male detective with a troubling marriage, a young woman holding a few too many secrets, a decades-old cold case that remains unsolved, and the desolate town filled with sketchy inhabitants. You’ll know from simply glancing at the cover whether this is novel you’ll want to read.
Cutters End is definitely a commercial novel and will find many valued readers looking for some sort of escapism. This would be a great book to gift for Father’s Day.
“She returned to her papers, indecisive. Since Mark’s visit, and perhaps just before, she sensed that her life was becoming unstuck. Her hand rested on the photograph from the old newspaper clipping. Nothing seemed definite and the resolve she’d enjoyed for a number of years was slipping.”
With all rural thrillers, setting is integral. Get that wrong and you’ve lost the atmosphere. In Cutters End, Margaret captures the thick heat and humidity of rural Australia with ease — the desolate town and its silences, the houses and businesses few and far in between, with plenty of distance and solitude to commit a crime and keep it hidden. Everyone knows each other and secrets can remain hidden for years.
In most rural thrillers, evidence is lacking so the story relies on the protagonist slowly unravelling the crime secret-by-secret, and this usually stems from townsfolk. In Cutters End, whilst some evidence reveals itself over the course of the novel, Mark’s interactions with other characters and his ability to piece together clues helps him solve the crime.
“The phone rang: his mother. Mark felt the familiar pang of guilt that she was calling him and not the other way around. His mother still lived in Booralama, the country town he grew up in. The rose gardens, the long, slow, winding river and the old gum trees — the town never failed to fill him with fault nostalgia for all things young and free.”
Told with a dual timeline, moving between the 1980s/1990s and the present allows Margaret to reflect on each era. In the past, hitchhiking was incredibly common but posed significant dangers for young women. Additionally, women who were abused or hurt were rarely believed, so it was easier for crimes to go unpunished. The present storyline follows a fairly standard kind of procedural pace, with Mark finding similarities between the events in Cutters End and the notorious Milat backpacker murders.
Admittedly, I did feel like a couple of loose threads undervalued the rest of the novel, particularly around TV presenter Suzanne Miller and her interest in the case. She’s in one scene and we barely hear from her again. I felt there was a missed opportunity to incorporate her into the story, because at present it feels like you could cull her and it’d barely make a difference. Secondly, Mark’s relationship with his wife felt thinly developed, and their storyline as a whole could’ve been explored a bit more.
“As the dark paddocks rolled on by, gradually giving way to subdivisions and then traffic, he thought about his own lack of resolve over the years. He seemed to float along; things came to him and he accepted them as par for the course.”
Pacy, intriguing and exhilarating, Cutters End is recommended for fans of rural crime, such as Jane Harper, Chris Hammer and Greg Buchanan. Readership skews 25+
Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Penguin Random House Publishers