Take a North Carolina criminal defense lawyer, marinate him in bourbon and self-loathing, and turn him loose to find his father's killer—that's the setup for The King of Lies, the ambitious debut thriller from former attorney John Hart. Nobody does hate like Southerners, and you'll find plenty of it in the characters slithering through this well-spun murder mystery, along with southern-fried red herrings that pack a wallop of their own. Hart is especially good at creating atmosphere by inference: Without larding on magnolias and coonhounds, he creates a convincing sense of place. Of a woman for whom he lusts, narrator Work Pickens says, "Even more than this place, this woman did things for me. She was farmwork-lean, with flaxen hair and eyes that shone like sun on water. Her hands were rough, but I loved them for the things they could do. I liked to watch her plant things, those hands in dark earth. It reminded me of what I knew as a child, that dirt is good and the earth forgives." If ultimately Pickens's story steers a little too close to another top thriller of recent years—to name it would be to give the game away—this is still a gripping performance.