Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The BIG Questions of Our Lives: SUMMER OF THE DEAD, Julia Keller

It's publication day for Julia Keller's newest West Virginia mystery featuring scrappy county prosecutor Bell Elkins and her team -- especially Sheriff Nick Fogelsong. And I have two copies arriving in today's mail, because another Bell Elkins book means another hard look at the tragic forms that love and passion can take, the ones that lead to crime.

Keller, who was born in West Virginia, offers us the hardscrabble town of Akers Gap and its surrounding mountains, where coal is not just a resource but a lifeline and also crippling. In this third in the series (after A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River), Bell Elkins is faced with what looks like a serial killer in her territory, someone making the nights terminally unsafe. That's high pressure on her and the sheriff. And as the public pressure rises to find the killer and stop the murders, Bell's badly handicapped by her commitment to house her sister Shirley, still on probation after release from a prison term for the death of the sisters' father many years ago.

And Shirley's making things really tough on Bell's professional standing: Swept up in an investigation of a low-life bar knifing, Shirley makes a point of having a "get out of jail free" card in her relationship to Bell. Cut the tie? No -- there are reasons Bell feels like she owes more than she can pay, to her dodgy, emotionally broken, and unpleasant sis.

So in addition to investigating the murders -- yes, of course there will be connections to the drug trade in the region, which Keller has already painted so vividly during Bell's two previous investigations -- Bell is chasing her sister and reliving the early trauma of her own life. And she's got to do it without her usual anchor of taking care of her teenaged daughter.

Keller spins the risks and dangers at a ferocious pace. We're inside some other characters too, including Lindy Crabree, a coal miner's daughter doing the best she can to keep her failing father comfortable in a very bizarre way. As clues and twists pull Bell back toward Lindy and this outwardly different father-daughter relationship, personal risk to Bell rises drastically.

But Keller also pulls the reader firmly onto Lindy's side. And her descriptions of mountain life braid a love for the region with an understanding of what we all sacrifice for the people and places we love -- even when those people and places may kill us. Keller's deft touch allows her to insert startlingly vivid chunks of description, even while Bell races toward a confrontation with the killer or killers involved:
Freddie's long white Silverado truck was still parked in front of the house. He always parked it there, leaving the driveway free as a a workspace for his loving labors on the Thunderbird, which he kept at the upper end of the concrete slab, next to the house. The high polish on the Thunderbird's tubular flanks gave it a sleek, missile-like look. You could tell how much Freddie Arnett loved this car, how much he'd fussed over it, gushed over it, pampered it; it had been unconditionally adored. Same was true for his grandson, Bell guessed. She knew how tempting it was to give everything to a beloved child, to make any sacrifice. It wasn't always the right thing to do -- it was almost never the right thing to do -- but you did it, anyway. Couldn't help yourself.

"Okay, old man," Bell murmured. Even if someone had been standing right next to her, they couldn't have made out the words; her voice was soft and filled with grim wonder. "What happened here? Who the hell did this to you -- and why?"

It took her a moment to realize that she was talking to the dead. And another moment to realize that it didn't bother her one bit.
Keller's mysteries earn high praise from crime fiction pro Michael Connelly, and it's well deserved. Deeply conflicted characters that are worth caring about; hard lives that lead some to crime, and some (like Lindy) to powerful self-sacrifice; a region of West Virginia that's been left behind in many ways but that suffers from the same pressures of our cities and suburbs; all of this, Keller puts on the table.

And she reminds us that whether in crime or in our own lives, scars are rarely a sign of a closed door on our past. Sometimes they cover shrapnel that has to emerge in its own time, as painful and dangerous in its removal as in the original explosions that lodge it within us.

No comments: