Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Julia Keller, A KILLING IN THE HILLS: West Virginia Crime Fiction, Top Notch

When the front cover of a book has a blurb from Scott Turow, who can resist looking inside it? And when it starts as solidly as Julia Keller's first work of crime fiction, A KILLING IN THE HILLS, I'm glad to get lost in the pages. Last but not least, I love the cover -- my one visit to West Virginia convinced me it was nothing at all like my home state of Vermont, but the cover might as well be painted from a view near my own ridge.

So much for the starters. The good news is, every chapter of A KILLING IN THE HILLS is active, paced for taut suspense, highly believable, and worth the read. My only quarrel with the book was its last page, which I thought was too soft for a book this crisp and fierce and good. Small quarrel.

Bell Elkins, divorced with a teenaged daughter, holds the job of prosecutor in Acker's Gap, West Virginia. Like most small towns along the coasts of America (and increasingly, the heartland towns are getting the same thing), Acker's Gap is facing drug problems that stun the law enforcement professionals, attract the teens, and feed the wallets of the crude and manipulative. Bell's been aggressively working against the organized drug marketers that are overrunning her region -- struggling to cut off the dealers, and never even close to who's behind the many arms of evil.

The drawback, for this driven and tough-minded professional, is that she's spending so many hours at her job that her own daughter finds it easy to feel neglected by a mom who puts her job first. As the book opens, Carla's playing with her food at the diner where she's supposed to meet her mother -- who is, of course, late again. And the killing this teen witnesses is so sickening and shocking, it almost knocks her back onto her mother's side of things. Almost.

Meanwhile, the killer is having a blast.
Chill was flying high. He felt like he did after sex: nerved up, wound tight, polished to a high gloss. Some men got sleepy. Not Chill. He got antsy.

He'd just killed three people. And gotten away clean. ... Nobody touched him. Nobody ever would.
Unexpectedly, an unrelated case puts Bell into danger as she follows up on depositions, trying to decide whether to charge a mentally handicapped young man with murder in the death of his playmate. On her way back down a mountainside of hairpin turns, nursing her Explorer carefully along the narrow road, she reaches the most challenging curve and slows for it:
Without moving her head, her eyes flicked up to check the rearview mirror. Her heart gave a panicky lurch.

There was now a car right behind her. What the h---? she thought. She checked the mirror again. No mistake. The car wasn't slowing down. It seemed, in fact, to be speeding up. And it was right on track to smash into the back of the Explorer, just as Bell's momentum slung her into the nastiest curve on the mountain.
The gap between Bell and her daughter will plunge both of them into even more danger, as the novel deepens, always sustaining its powerful pace.

Julia Keller won a Pulitzer Prize during her journalism career, for a three-part series that she wrote for the Chicago Tribune. Although A KILLING IN THE HILLS is her first mystery, her narrative skills and sense of pace are already well developed. This book goes on the re-read shelf, to be savored again; I'm looking forward to Keller's future books, too. Check her website (pretty basic, so far) at

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