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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unflinching But Compassionate Appalachian Murder Mystery Series Just Keeps Getting Better

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Last Ragged Breath, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from previous Bell Elkins mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

February 26, 1972—A coal slurry dam breaks in Logan County, West Virginia, days after passing a government inspection.  Thousands of gallons of black water pour over the area, destroying homes and businesses, leaving thousands homeless, and over 100 people dead.  Known as the Buffalo Creek flood, reverberations from the disaster lingered long after its survivors settled with the Pittston Coal Company for millions of dollars in damages.     

Last Ragged Breath, the fourth and latest installment in Julia Keller's compelling Bell Elkins series, uses this tragic event as an intriguing backdrop.  The novel features Royce Dillard, a man who lost his parents in the Buffalo Creek disaster.  Royce would have been killed as well if it hadn't been for his mother, who tossed him to safety before she disappeared in the inky floodwaters (although Royce is fictional, his backstory is very loosely based on the real experience of "miracle baby" Kerry Albright).  Now a recluse living off the grid with seven stray dogs, Royce is accused of murdering a slick land developer who was set on building a multi-million dollar resort in Royce's backyard. 

For prosecuting attorney Belfa "Bell" Elkins, few things about the case ring true.  But with damning evidence against Royce, there's little she can do to stop the proceedings.  She longs for the good ole days when she could sit down with her colleague and best friend Nick Fogelsong, putting their heads together to solve puzzling crimes.  But there's a new sheriff in town and Nick is busy with his new job as the head of security for a gas station chain.  Bell misses him with a fierceness that manifests itself as anger.  Resigned to prove Royce's innocence on her own, Bell now faces her toughest case yet.  Who really killed Ed Hackel?  Why?  Can she find a way to exonerate Royce in time?  Or will the seemingly gentle recluse rot in jail for a crime he (probably) didn't commit?  

There are so many elements that keep me engaged by the Bell Elkins series.  First, I love Bell, who's as tough and devoted as she is vulnerable.  She's very real, as authentically flawed as the rest of us.  Second, I'm always fascinated by Keller's unflinching, but compassionate depiction of rural poverty.  Her ruminations on the devastating affects of unemployment, drug abuse, and alcoholism are both eye-opening and heartbreaking.  Third, Keller always manages to surprise me.  Like with other Bell Elkins mysteries, I thought I had Last Ragged Breath's murderer pegged long before Bell did.  Nope.  I was totally wrong.  For all of these reasons, I'm always eager to see what Julia Keller will do next.  As evidenced by Last Ragged Breath, her books just keep getting better.  The next comes out in August 2016 and I, for one, cannot wait.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Bell Elkins series, including A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; and Summer of the Dead)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, violence, and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Last Ragged Breath from the generous folks at Minotaur Books (a division of Macmillan).  Thank you!
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