Chris Offutt's Shifty's Boys

More Noir, Y’all: A Review of Chris Offutt’s Shifty’s Boys by John David Morgan

Noir, the English-language translation of the French word black, is a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. Noir author James Ellroy says: “The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systematic corruption. The overarching and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.

Exactly what one experiences when reading a Mick Hardin thriller by Chris Offutt.

Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, population 200, a former mining town in the Appalachian hills. His books include Shifty’s Boys, The Killing Hills, Country Dark, Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods, The Good Brother, The Same River Twice, No Heroes, and My Father the Pornographer. His work appears in many anthologies, including the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Memoirs, Best American Food Writing, Best of the Decade: New Stories of the South, and the Vintage Book of American Short Stories. Read his work in Issue 8 of Miracle MonocleHe currently lives in rural Lafayette County near Oxford, Mississippi.

The author’s first venture into the noir genre was his 2021 novel, The Killing Hills, wherein we're introduced to Army criminal investigator Mick Hardin. While reviewers called the southern gothic, Kentucky-speak book an out-and-out noir novel, Many were quick to point out that this wasn’t your father’s noir, using such adjectives to describe the work as: “southern noir,” “country noir,” “Kentucky noir,” and my personal favorite, “holler noir.”

What might we then have expected from Shifty’s Boys, released in July 2022?

More noir, for sure. Y’all.

The second Mick Hardin installment, like the first, opens with the finding of a dead body. In The Killing Hills, the body is that of a woman, found by a Korean-war veteran named Tucker, the protagonist in Offutt’s novel Country Dark. Offutt’s reusing and recycling of characters are understandable, given the action is taking place in fictional Rocksalt, Kentucky, an eastern Kentucky town of only 6,000 in Offutt’s writing. Rocksalt is clearly based on the similar-sized city of Morehead, Kentucky.

Barney Kissick, one of the two youngest sons of Shifty Kissick, is initially a suspect in The Killing Hills murder but is cleared when Mick discovers the real culprit. Barney has an unfortunate and unenviable role reversal in Shifty’s Boys. This go-round, Barney is the victim. His body is found in an out-of-business Western Auto store by Albin, a cabbie and wanna-be race-car driver.

Barney’s body is found within Rocksalt city limits, and therefore not a problem for Mick’s sister Linda, who is running for re-election as the Eldridge County sheriff. Later in the novel, when another body is found, Offutt gives us a realistic vignette of small-town politics. That body is found in a nebulous area that could either be in the city, or the county. A quick survey is done to determine which law enforcement agency will be responsible for that investigation.

The Rocksalt city police seem uninterested, and little motivated, to pursue an investigation of Barney’s death, believing it to be an inherent risk in his business as a heroin dealer. Barney’s mother Shifty asks Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) investigator Mick, who is home in Eldridge County recovering from an IED injury, to find out who killed her son.

Mick’s motivation to investigate Barney’s murder is a major plot point that may be difficult for some readers to swallow. Why exactly is Mick helping Shifty? When Shifty questions Mick on his progress in the matter, he tells her “Ma’am, I ain’t working for you and I don’t answer to you.” She responds, “Then who the hell are you working for?” His answer: “People who ain’t been killed yet.” Gosh. That’s an awfully large group.

This exchange, and the scene later in the novel when Mick updates his will immediately before the climactic showdown with Barney’s killers, seemed a cross between “The Equalizer” and “Death Wish.” Mick’s acceptance of the challenge to find Barney’s killer is the inciting event for the fast-paced action in the book, but one wonders if Mick—or anyone in his right mind, for that matter— would go to so much trouble, and risk their lives, for someone they barely knew?

Additionally, taking on this Herculean task adds a confusing moral calculus to the story. How far is Mick willing to go, to not just find Barney’s killers, but then kill those killers (there’s a whole lot of killing going on) in order to protect Shifty from further harm from Barney’s Detroit heroin supplier? It’s complicated and messy. But isn’t that what noir is all about?

The book is full of language that I recall from my youth, growing up initially in Central Kentucky, and later in Louisville. Offutt uses terms such as: “shit fire and save matches,” “keen as a briar, crazy as a soup sandwich,” “tougher than a night in jail,” “Lord love a duck,” and “slept like a baby; cried all night and shit the bed.” I’m certain he’s correct that language like this is still in use in eastern Kentucky.

The reason the novel is called Shifty’s Boys and not Shifty’s Son, is the presence of two other sons besides Barney. We learned in The Killing Hills that Shifty had five children, one girl, and four boys. Her only daughter moved to Michigan when her husband found a job at the Ford plant, something very common in Kentucky in the immediate post-World War II economic boom. Her two youngest sons were the murdered Barney, and Mason, also introduced in The Killing Hills, but a thinly-developed characters that we learn very little about. Her older two boys were “lost to her”— one to the graveyard and the other stationed at Camp Pendelton in San Diego. Shifty’s thoughts on that unnamed San Diego son: “For a while she worried about him in California with all those serial killers and vegetarians but she figured a Marine could take care of himself.”

“Take care of himself” is an understatement. Shifty’s Marine son Raymond, or “Ray-Ray,” finally makes his appearance in Chapter 16, roughly 60% of the way into the book. We immediately learn two things about Raymond. First, he retired a year ago from the Marine's Third Battalion. As Mick says, “First Battalion makes men, Second makes Marines, Third makes machines.” The other thing we learn is that Ray-Ray is gay, the reason he left Eldridge County.

Unlike his brother Mason, Raymond is a wonderfully developed character. Raymond is safely home from California, having somehow survived the serial killers, but he is a vegetarian, making him a pariah in Appalachia. His breakfast is an omelet with cheese, onion, ramps, and a diced turnip, a meal Shifty refuses to take a single bite of, demanding sausage and egg with light-bread toast. We see Raymond doing a tai chi routine beginning with Warrior posture, then Part the Horse’s Mane, followed by Crane Spreads Wings, and finally, Gold Cock Stands on One Leg. On seeing this, Mick says, “You might be the first man in the county to ever do tai chi.” That's another understatement. Mick and Raymond are probably the only two people in the county capable of correctly spelling or pronouncing tai chi, while not confusing the term with either the capital of Taiwan or the every-other-Wednesday featured item at the Jumbo-Big Buffet in Rocksalt.

A memorable scene in the book for me, is when Mick brings up a chicken from The Killing Hills. “Couple of years ago,” Mick said, “your mom had a chicken that could walk backwards.” Raymond answers, “Ol’ Sparky. Something got him. Fox or hawk. Mommy never believed in penning animals up. Or us kids.” That line might be a metaphor, since “not penning up” her heroin-dealing son Barney led to his death at the hands of human criminal “foxes or hawks.”

Reviews of both installments of Offutt’s noir novels have generally been overwhelmingly positive. One exception is Joyce Carol Oates's June 15, 2021, New York Times Book Review of The Killing Hills, in which she says, “Women come off particularly poor. Hardin’s sister, Linda, is ill-prepared to be a county sheriff, behaving immaturely in her public role.” In this reviewer’s opinion, that's not the case in Shifty’s Boys. Linda’s reelection campaign arc is very well written: “She’d never intended to run for sheriff. Her plan had been to fill the post until the election, then ask the winner for reassignment back to dispatch, but a sexist moron had thrown his hat in the ring. Keeping him out of a job was crucial to her. If he won the election, it would vindicate all the men who thought a woman shouldn’t have authority.”

Sounds pretty mature to me.

One surprising thing in my reading of reviews of Offutt’s two noir novels is that no one has suggested a connection between CID agent Mick Hardin, and the phonetically similarly named Detective Mike Hammer immortalized by Mickey Spillane. Is it just me, or doesn’t it seem at least possible that Offutt had Mike Hammer in the back of his mind when creating his character? Granted, the element of place is hugely different: New York City versus Appalachia, the early twenty-first versus the mid-twentieth century. But the two characters seem cut from a similar cloth, at least in my opinion.

Offutt’s third Mick Hardin novel, Code of the Hills, is due out June 13, 2023. One wonders if Offutt can mount a challenge, and exceed the number of books Spillane wrote in the Mike Hammer series. Just how many more murders can Hardin possibly investigate in tiny Eldridge County?

We will see. I for one, can’t wait.

Pick up your copy of Shifty Boys from Grove Atlantic today.

JOHN DAVID MORGAN is a graduate editor of Miracle Monocle.