A Killing in the Hills -- and I loved it. In working on the review, I found that Keller might have been a novice in crime fiction (although you can't tell that, from her taut and compelling story), but she's a writing pro: winner of a Pulitzer in journalism (author website http://www.juliakeller.net). Her news stories must have been fascinating, because her grip on character melds with a slow certainty of rising tension as Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney, tackles the gritty reality of law enforcement in a small, coal-burnt town in West Virginia.
A few weeks ago someone purchased our copy of A Killing in the Hills, which made me realize Keller probably had a second book out -- and here it is indeed, BITTER RIVER. The book opens as Bell is headed home from one of her bittersweet visits with her teenaged daughter (now living with the ex), only to learn that 16-year-old Lucinda Trimble (whom her own daughter knew, of course) has been found murdered in a car in the Bitter River ... and pregnant.
Bell is the one who'll have to take the news to Lucinda's mom. She and the local sheriff, Nick Fogelsong, each commit themselves to taking this crime very, very personally, and finding who's done it. But how much of the town's inner life will get rubbed raw in the process? And why is Nick acting so strangely?
Keller's first book took Bell up the road of daring to confront the drug trade in her hometown; now she's got to confront family matters, as well as a veteran newly returned from Afghanistan who's turning out to be pretty scary himself. And then there's her carefully private and valued new relationship with a somewhat younger man -- which is about to get into the local word of mouth, as Bell scrabbles for a bit of reassurance and comfort in between more and more pain and loss.
Keller could have written John Donne's lines, "Any man's death diminishes me / Because I am involved in mankind" -- to live in a small town, as Bell Elkins does, is to be bound to the lives around you, and to feel all the pain doubly.
So when Bell and Nick finally get to the bottom of what's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia, there's a costly balance to be reckoned.
I couldn't put the book down. Yes, it's that good. Again. Thanks, Julia Keller.