Saturday, January 23, 2021


LIKE LIONS by Brian Panowich (Minotaur Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Clayton Burroughs is a small-town Georgia sheriff, a new father, and, improbably, the heir apparent of Bull Mountain’s most notorious criminal family.

As he tries to juggle fatherhood, his job and his recovery from being shot in the confrontation that killed his two criminally-inclined brothers last year, he’s doing all he can just to survive. Yet after years of carefully toeing the line between his life in law enforcement and his family, he finally has to make a choice.

When a rival organization makes a first foray into Burroughs territory, leaving a trail of bodies and a whiff of fear in its wake, Clayton is pulled back into the life he so desperately wants to leave behind. Revenge is a powerful force, and the vacuum left by his brothers’ deaths has left them all vulnerable. With his wife and child in danger, and the way of life in Bull Mountain under siege for everyone, Clayton will need to find a way to bury the bloody legacy of his past once and for all. 

I've long been a fan of the 'grit lit' tales and rural noir of the American South - particularly enjoying the likes of John Hart, James Lee Burke, Wiley Cash, and James Sallis, among others - so I'd been curious for a while about Brian Panowich's crime writing set in the wild mountains of Georgia. I'd heard some very good things about his debut BULL MOUNTAIN (2015), but ended up reading this sequel first.

Put simply, it's terrific.

There's a mix of lyricism and stark violence in Panowich's storytelling, which gives this tale a sort of mesmerising grittiness and hooked me on several levels from the earliest pages. Clayton Burroughs is an intriguing character - a lawman who comes from a family more comfortable on the other side of the law. He's burdened by many things that have happened in the past (both in BULL MOUNTAIN and before), as well as an assortment of troubles in the present. 

Thanks to Panowich's fine prose and storytelling Clayton's descent into pills and booze as he struggles to deal with things feels human and heart-aching rather than a crime novel cliché. 

Panowich lured me in with both his style and his story. LIKE LIONS is a crime tale that bubbles away like a backwater still, creating and concentrating into something that packs quite the hefty punch.

But the real heart and deep richness of this novel is in the characters who live on this wild mountain in Georgia - their struggles and choices and the consequences that follow from what they do and don't. 

LIKE LIONS is excellent rural crime fiction: an emotionally charged novel that's full of drama and caries a deep understanding of people and place. A hard-hitting combination of family drama and crime, wonderfully written by a strong voice. How much did I like it? As soon as I finished I immediately went and got myself a copy of BULL MOUNTAIN.

Among my favourite reads of recent years. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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