Category Archives: appalachia

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.



‘Justified’ returns tomorrow night

Oh yeah. The coolest show on TV is back.

“Justified,” the crime drama based on Elmore Leonard’s writings about small-time Kentucky criminals and the U.S. marshal opposing them, returns Tuesday night on FX.

Timothy Olyphant is back as Raylan Givens, the slow-simmering marshal, as is Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, Raylan’s longtime friend, sometimes nemesis, sometimes ally.

FX has given us an idea about what to expect this season:

“In Season 2, Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Olyphant) squared off against criminal matriarch Mags Bennett (the part for which Margo Martindale won an Emmy Award). The end of Season 2 brought about the end of the Bennett family’s hold over Harlan County and the return of Raylan’s old nemesis/friend Boyd Crowder to the criminal life. This season, Boyd and his crew will find they aren’t the only ones making a play to rule the Harlan underworld. Now Raylan finds himself facing off against dirty politicians, hidden fortunes, a mysterious man named ‘Limehouse’ and an enterprising and lethal criminal from the Motor City.”

The Motor City? Will Raylan run afoul of “The Detroit Connection?” (Sorry, inside joke.)

Even though this is the third season, you won’t be missing anything if you’re just jumping into the show.

Check it out, Tuesday night on FX.

What’s on your nightstand?

We’ve got books all over our house. In bookcases and in boxes and filling those handy folding shelves that Target used to sell. I’ve got boxes of old comics and monster movie magazines in the garage (which themselves will one day be the topic of a blog entry or two).

But most of the book action in my household is on the nightstands.

All of us have a few books within reach, ready to be read in the few minutes each night before we (I, really) crash into fitful sleep.

The nightstand is where I put my glasses and my keys and my iPhone each night, but the two stacks of books, teetering a little precariously over everything, is what makes me feel comfortable.

The stack of books at the back of the nightstand is shamefully neglected. Some of those books have been there for a couple of years. They’re books that have been recommended, gifts that I’m meaning to get around to, books that I bought on sale just because I could and books that I’ve actually read before but want to keep handy. “Gregor the Overlander,” by “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins, is one that has been highly recommended to me. “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson is one that I’ve already read and highly recommend.

On top of that stack is a small legal pad, complete with Harry Potter pen, that I keep handy just to jot down notes.

The front stack on my nightstand sees the most action. That’s where you’ll find my latest library books. On top of that stack right now are three books in Craig Johnson’s series of mystery novels about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. If you haven’t read Johnson’s books, you should because they’re great. Good stories, even better characters and a great take on life from his crusty old sheriff protagonist. And you can say, “Oh, I’ve read those books” in case a proposed A&E cable TV series about Longmire is a hit.

Also prominent on the front stack is “The Encyclopedia of Appalachia,” a hefty reference book with a depth of knowledge that matches its weight. Anything you want to know about that region that’s so dear to my heart can be found in that book.

We’re trying to corral our books in this household, figuring out if we want to get some new bookcases. If we do, how we store our books will probably change.

I can’t imagine any change, however, that will rob my nightstand of books.