No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a down in his luck ordinary guy (Llewlyn Moss) who stumbles across the scene of a major shootout in a middle of nowhere section of scrubland down near the border with Mexico. Finding a briefcase full of money amongst the dead bodies, he makes a run with it, along with his girlfriend. Soon, of course, the missing money is noted by one or more of the people involved in the ‘business transaction’ gone wrong and a killer in the shape of Chigurh is dispatched to retrieve it. Into the fray enters Sheriff Bell as he follows a trail of destruction left by Chigurh in his pursuit of Moss.
The novel tells the story from the points of view of Moss, Chigurh and Bell. Moss’ desperation is palpable as he tries to keep ahead of Chigurh. The relationship between Moss and his girlfriend is fraught as they yearn for a better life for themselves and slowly realise that the theft of the money is not going to deliver this to them. Chigurh is the most chilling fictional killer I’ve come across in a long time, exemplified by a number of scenes in which he dispatches (or doesn’t) several people in the most clinical way imaginable. Sheriff Bell brings the light of reason to the story as he longs for the old days when life was not so brutal.
While the basic elements of this story have been used before by many writers, what makes No Country for Old Men so effective is the radically pared back prose. There is an economy of style and usage that suits the locale and the characters perfectly. The sense of place is wonderfully evoked. The dialogue (once you get used to the lack of quotation marks, punctuation and apostrophes, etc.) is spot on. You can practically smell the decaying bodies at the scene of the original shootout, hear the defective air conditioning units in the decrepit motel rooms and feel the hot, dry sun beating down on your shoulders.
As an exercise in pure storytelling and gripping tension, No Country for Old Men can’t be beaten. Highly recommended.