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.
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!