(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Like much of Appalachia, Acker's Gap, West Virginia, is a place marked by paradox. Nestled between two craggy mountain peaks, the tiny town fairly glows with the kind of lush, natural beauty that steals people's breath away, surprising even the most frequent viewer with its stunning vistas. No matter how verdant the hills, however, the sweet smell of mountain laurel and black huckleberry can't hide the rancid stink of poverty that pervades the area. It's a desperate, soul-sucking thing that breeds "a thoughtless, automatic, knee-jerk violence" (28) that's becoming all too familiar to Acker's Gap's salt-of-the-earth citizens.
As the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, Belfa "Bell" Elkins sees the result of this reckless brutality every day. Tasked with protecting her vulnerable hometown, the 39-year-old feels the crushing pressure that comes with fighting a losing battle. And yet, she refuses to give up. The youth of Acker's Gap deserve a better future, something more than the bleak hopelessness that defined Bell's growing-up years. With the help of Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the 52-year-old who took Bell under his wing after the shocking death of her abusive father, her burden feels a little bit lighter. Some days, their long-time friendship is the only thing that keeps her coming back to the peeling courthouse where they both work, with the fate and faith of Raythune County resting on their shoulders.
When three elderly men are gunned down while sipping coffee at a local diner, it shocks the whole town. Carla Elkins, Bell's 17-year-old daughter, is especially tortured by the event, since she witnessed it firsthand. Determined to find the shooter, not just to bring the killer to justice, but also to calm Carla's fears, Bell resolves to solve the case. With no leads, that will be a tough job. The deeper Bell's investigation goes, the more frustrated she becomes. When Carla realizes she may be the key to closing the case, both women find themselves in harm's way. Will the murderer be caught in time? Or will Bell and her daughter become the next victims?
Back in the Dark Ages, I spent a lot of time browsing library shelves, looking for enticing books to lug home and enjoy. These days, I rarely roam the stacks. It's much more convenient to find the titles I want online, place them on hold at my library, whip them off the reserved shelf when they come in, check out, and be on my merry way in 5 minutes flat. That's my usual M.O. But one day, not so long ago, I was searching for another mystery in the K section when I came across A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller. Because of its appealing cover and intriguing premise, I plucked it off the shelf. Not only did I read it, but I enjoyed it, so much so that I immediately put the next two books in the series on hold at the library. Why did I find A Killing in the Hills (as well as the subsequent novels) so absorbing? Let me give you three reasons:
- Bell Elkins. Our heroine is a complex woman, haunted by her past and the pervasive ways it still affects her in the present. Her flaws make her realistically human. Bell makes mistakes, she gets angry, discouraged, and bitter, but she always presses on, determined to do her best for the town she loves. It's this doggedness that makes her so compelling.
- Acker's Gap. I like stories with rich, vivid settings, especially when authors dig beyond surface beauty to show the reality of a place in all its complicated, conflicting charm. At this, Keller is truly a master.
- The mystery. Keller creates mysteries as twisty as a West Virginia mountain road. I never see the surprises coming. The suspense keeps me riveted to the page.
Is that enough to convince you? It should be! A Killing in the Hills sucked me in and made me care about Bell, Acker's Gap, and, most importantly, the poverty epidemic in so many of America's small mountain towns. Keller's debut novel stuck with me because of its complexity in plot, characters, and sense of place. Despite the quaint setting, this is no cozy—it gets gritty (note the R-rating). Still, the story feels somehow hopeful. A Killing in the Hills isn't an easy read, but it is an affecting one. As are its sequels. It's always exciting to find such treasures in the stacks. Maybe I should browse more often, eh?
(Readalikes: Other mysteries in the Bell Elkins series—Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; and Last Ragged Breath)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for strong language, violence/gore, sexual content, and depictions of prescription and illegal drug abuse
To the FTC, with love: Another library