Appalachian mystery: ‘A Killing in the Hills’

a killing in the hills julia keller

Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (who won for stories in the Chicago Tribune about an Illinois tornado and its effects on a small town), has begun an appealing new mystery novel series with “A Killing in the Hills” and its sequel, “Bitter River.”

So far I’ve read “A Killing in the Hills” and, as someone whose family hails from Appalachia, I recognized and appreciated the characters and situations in the book. It’s a world of good people and beautiful places poisoned by poverty, lack of education and the easy opportunity of drugs.

Set in a small West Virginia town, “A Killing in the Hills” introduces Bell (short, kinda, for Belfa) Elkins, a native of Acker’s Gap with a haunted past of childhood abuse who came back to town just a few years ago and was elected prosecuting attorney. Along with her ally, Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, Bell is pushing back hard at the illicit sale and abuse of prescription drugs, which have replaced meth and other illegally manufactured drugs in many towns.

Bell is trying to balance her long days as prosecutor with her role as mom to teenage daughter Carla. Bell’s two worlds collide when Carla, hanging out at a restaurant, sees the assassinations of three old men.

While Bell worries about her daughter and works with the sheriff to try to track down the killer, Carla does something incredibly wrong-headed but typically teenage: She realizes she has seen the killer before, at a drug-fueled party, and goes about trying to find him herself.

One element of the books that rings true is the animosity between Bell and Carla. The girl resents her mother and wants to flee Acker’s Gap to live with her father in D.C. When she decides to help solve the case, it’s almost like her decision is made to spite her mother.

Keller’s book rings true on other levels, too. Acker’s Gap will be familiar to anyone conversant with southern towns that didn’t have much to begin with but have lost even that in the plant closings and economic downturn of recent years. There’s not a lot to keep people in Acker’s Gap, and the people who do stay seem to be heading toward a dead end at quite a clip.

I thought I had the book’s central mystery figured out, but Keller surprised me. Maybe her resolution isn’t as likely as some would be, but it brings a nice bit of shock to the story, which had up to that point played out with greatly readable and realistically disheartening inevitability.

I’m up for another trip to Acker’s Gap.



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