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A Killing in the Hills–A Novel

Wikimedia Commons, Mmacbeth, 3-27-2014

Wikimedia Commons, Mmacbeth, 3-27-2014

Sometimes in my dreams I’m back in Charleston, West Virginia, wandering the wooded ridgelines of Sherwood Forest where I lived for six years as a child. The hills and hollows, the switchback roads, the heavy humidity, and the acrid scent of chemicals when the wind blew in from the southwest. The wild beauty of the hills co-existed with hulking chemical plants along the banks of the Kanawha River and grinding poverty in the hollows. Contrasts with razor sharp edges that pierce your soul, even when you’re just a kid.

Krista (far right) with her Sherwood Forest BFFs, early 70s

Krista (far right) with her Sherwood Forest BFFs, early 70s

And that probably explains why I was drawn to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and West Virginia native, Julia Keller’s Bell Elkins books—a fairly new mystery series set in fictional Acker’s Gap, “a shabby afterthought of a town tucked in the notch between two peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, like the last letter stuck in a mail slot after the post office has closed down for keeps.”


This mystery series begins with a dream too. County prosecutor Bell Elkins is haunted by her early years in a trailer on the banks of a West Virginia creek and the dark tragedy that changed the course of her life. “You could smell the creek, a damp rotting smell that was somehow also sweet, even before you could see it. The woods around it made a tight screen, as if the branches were gripping hands in a game of Red Rover. Daring you to break through.”

In A KILLING IN THE HILLS, Julia Keller’s debut book, three old men in a crowded restaurant are gunned down in broad daylight: “Pock Pock Pock.” Bell Elkins and the local sheriff Nick Fogelsong suspect that the horrific crime is tied to the illegal prescription drug trafficking that is “roaring across the state like a wildfire in a high wind,” but they are baffled by the shooter’s deliberate targeting of the three old friends. “One shot per head.” This is not a random act of violence. And even worse, Bell’s teenage daughter witnessed the murders.


What I like best about the series is Bell Elkins. She’s a fierce crusader with a shadowy past that both propels her and hinders her in her roles as prosecutor, mother, friend, sister, ex-wife, and child of Acker’s Gap. “To know and not to do is not to know,” is the driving force behind Bell Elkins’s return to the small mountain town from which she had once thought she’d made a clean break. She has an unshakable conviction that she must do what she can to beat back the poverty, hopelessness, and crime that is ravaging her homeland. In this way, she reminds me of the heroine of my own book, BROKEN PLACES, who also wrestles with the same question: What is our responsibility to act in the face of the suffering we witness?


Reading the Bell Elkins books reawakened a lot of memories for me (West Virginia luggage—a paper bag, riding my bike up and down the steep roads of my hilltop neighborhood, the scent of the woods in the summer), but you don’t need to have lived in West Virginia to thoroughly enjoy this excellent crime fiction series. Author Julia Keller explores universal themes of loss, redemption, forgiveness, and personal responsibility that resonate powerfully while her skillful crafting of engrossing mysteries will keep you guessing to the end. Good stuff, as my AP English teacher used to say!

What book have you read recently that struck a personal chord? I’m giving away BROKEN PLACES (ebook) to one randomly selected commenter! Be sure to return to K&T on Monday, July 28th, to see if you’re the winner. I’ll also be posting the names of the 2014 Romance Writers of America Rita® and Golden Heart® Romantic Suspense Winners!


Hank Phillippi Ryan: A Force of Nature

It’s our great pleasure to welcome award-winning, best-selling author Hank Phillippi Ryan! We have a lot to talk about and she’s crazy-busy, so let’s get started:

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan

I know for ‘The Other Woman’ you based your ‘what if’ premise on a real story about a Senator having an affair. Is there a ‘real story’ behind your newest release ‘The Wrong Girl’?

HANK: Yes! And that’s one of the great things about having a dual career as a TV journalist and a crime fiction author—sometimes there’s a news tip about a story—that doesn’t pan out for TV—but with a little imagination and a lot of adrenaline, it can turn into a terrific thriller.

 And you know,  I have an abiding philosophy that sometimes the universe provides.  Like every author I’ve ever known, coming up with that beautiful gem of the idea, the core of the book, is the hardest part of all. You know it when you have it and when you have it you can write it! But when you don’t have it, it’s miserable. And I writhe on the couch, haunted by the question,  trying to think—what’ll be the unique interesting original plot of the next book? And when it’s time—every time!—something presents itself. (Which should teach me not to worry, although that hasn’t quite happened yet.)

 In this  case, I got a phone call at my tv station from a woman who said she had a story for me. Now, I get a million of those calls a day—well, not that many, but many—and I try to listen to them all as much as I can. Who knows when it may be the story of the century. It could happen.

So this woman tells me a cousin of hers had spent the past ten years searching, unsuccessfully, for her birth mother. And finally, it seemed she’d found her. The adoption agency had called to say the birth mother had decided to let herself be known, and as a result, the agency called the daughter and set up a reunion.

But then, the caller said, everything began to fall apart. The “mother” and “daughter” met—they liked each other fine, and had a cup of tea. But as they chatted, things just didn’t add up.  Dates, times, cities, birthdays.

 And finally, the caller said, “They realized the agency had sent the mother the wrong girl.”

 I still remember the goose bumps I got when she said that.  I thought—this is my book!

 Now, in reality, the story of what happened is –surprisingly—not that interesting! It was a clerical error, and a name mix-up, (someone was Mary Williams and someone was Marie WiIliams, something like that) and they were indeed relatives, and nothing that would have happened to anyone else. But I was instantly transported to the world of adoption and foster care and the love of mothers and daughters—and the heartbreaking decisions that sometimes have to be made.

 What if an adoption agency was reuniting birth parents with the wrong children?  Could that happen? Whoa. And in that instant—I had THE WRONG GIRL.wrong-girl-225

All of us crave family—it’s our identity and our history and our story. For a person searching for her birth parent—do they really want to know? What if they don’t like them? What if the answers they find are unsettling? What if you were happier—before?

Or—and I’m smiling now—what if you get linked up with the wrong person? And what if someone deliberately lied about it?  Would you know? How? And what would you do?

What if you didn’t know the truth about your own family?

 Again, did I know the answers when I started writing it? Who, what, when ,where, why?  Nope, not  at all. But it was terrific fun and a constant surprise to find out.

Follow up to that: given your life as a reporter with WHDH in Boston, do you work on stories and think “wow, this would make a great novel!” (Like the ancient graveyard just discovered last month?)

HANK: Every moment of every day. You’re right, a few weeks ago we discovered that cemetery officials, for instance, were trying to hide that during a renovation of a building they discovered bones. Now—what crime fiction author wouldn’t alert to that one?

And seeing the world through the eyes of a crime fiction author as well as a reporter has changed everything, now that I think about it. Everything—from a personality to a bit of dialogue to a crime scene to an office conflict to the fragrance of the Boston Harbor and how a mother offers her child a potato chip…you know? Becomes the beginning of a possibility.

I love that—it’s not just “it would make a great novel”—but it would give me a genuine moment, or an authentic emotion, or a realistic setting.

And of course, as a reporter, (I’ve been on the air almost forty years!) people are always trying to tell me other people’s secrets! And secrets are always treasures.

I LOVE gritty, determined Jane Ryland! How many books do you plan in her series? And what about a relationship with her hot editor? 🙂

HANK: Thank you! Well, four are done deals, and I am thrilled about that—coming out in 2014 and 2015.  And I am laughing—what a good idea about the relationship with the hot editor—you might be very intrigued about what happens with exactly that in THE WRONG GIRL. Let me know what you think.

What will happen with Jake and Jane? If anything? I have no idea. No outline, no idea!

other-woman-240h ‘The Other Woman’ won the 2013 MWA/Mary Higgins Clark Award (congratulations!) What was it like actually meeting the great author or is she an old friend?

HANK: Oh. It was—life changing and inspirational. I was so thrilled to win—I can’t even describe that—and to know that she read my book and approved, well, can you imagine?

She was elegant, and regal, and bejeweled–and completely charming. A wonderful sense of humor. She’s the real thing, and that’s clear in everything she does. She worked hard from moment one, and still does. And she’s not resting on her laurels—I think  she’s interested in getting better every day—and again, that’s inspirational. I went home and worked even harder.

Name authors whose books you automatically buy and devour.

Sue Grafton. Tess Gerritsen. Lisa Scottoline. Lisa Gardner. Linwood Barclay. Julia Spencer-Fleming.

So, you’re married, a reporter, a bestselling author, president of ‘Sisters in Crime’, on the Board of Mystery Writers of America as well as being a MWA instructor and contribute to two well-known blogs: the Femme Fatales and Jungle Red Writers and you have a newsletter. Seriously. How on earth do you accomplish all of this? Do you schedule yourself down to the minute?

HANK: Well, you know, I kind of do. Not in such a draconian way, but I am very organized—I have lists and list of lists, and several calendars, and I’m always figuring out the next thing I need to do. The deadline for the book is always the umbrella decision-maker—can I do whatever it is and still write the best possible book? If yes, then I can do it.

Ah, I used to cook all the time, and I’m good at it, but there’s a lot of Whole Foods carry-out salmon on our menu these days. We don’t have dinner parties anymore, and I can’t remember the last time we went to a real movie or on vacation. So I guess I admit my “external fun” level is low.

My husband—my dear, patient, supportive husband—is a criminal defense attorney, and has lots of big cases, so he has projects of his own.

On work days, I work at Channel 7 from 9 til 6-ish, then write or do book things from 7-10. Then we have dinner at ten! We try to think of it as, ah, chic.

SO far, so good.  But very, very non-stop.

Food you just can’t say no to?

HANK: Twizzlers. Pizza.  Triple venti non-fat latte.  Fresh raspberries.

What’s next for Jane Ryland and is there a tentative release date?

HANK: TRUTH BE TOLD will be out Sept 2014—I love it!  Jane’s on the trail of a bank executive who may be manipulating mortgage records to keep people out of foreclosure. (Yes, she admits, its robbing the bank from the inside. But hey—banks were bailed out—maybe it’s time for the people to be bailed out.)

And Jake’s assigned to investigate the murder of a woman found in an empty house—a house that’s been foreclosed on.

What happens when you do a good thing—but it’s illegal?

Wow! That sounds GREAT! If you hadn’t been a reporter or writer what would you have been?

HANK: I think about that sometimes. I read an article where it suggested you look back at your childhood dreams and see how what you’re doing now compares to that.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a flight attendant (glamorous back then), and a waitress (you got to bring people things that made them happy and then get money for it. Hey, I was 6.)—then a geneticist (discovery!), and then a disc jockey (music and show business) or the lawyer for the mine workers. (Helping people and making the world fair.)

But really, what I discovered in over-thinking about the essence of it all, was that I wanted to perform, and tell people what to do.

That still makes me laugh.

What else would I do? This is it, sister. Story-telling. Sometimes true stories—and sometimes stories I get to make up.

READERS: For a chance to win a copy of THE WRONG GIRL please comment or ask Hank a question. Today’s Q: If you were adopted would YOU seek out your birth-parents?

Hank and Louise photoHank doesn’t know this, but our own Diana Belchase managed to capture a picture of her interviewing Louise Penny at the Malice Domestic Conference this past May. I think you’ll agree with me, readers, after reading all of Hank’s activities, jobs, blog and novels, she really is the definition of a Force of Nature!

HANK: (Do readers have searching stories? I’d love to hear them..send me an email via my website—or find me on Facebook!)



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