This has been a stressful month. And reading should not be stressful. So while I’ve got a stack of books that I’m reading for a purpose—for a book club, for a discussion group, for work—I needed something that reminded me that reading for pleasure is one of life’s true joys.
Enter the good, old-fashioned murder mystery. A book I can devour in a couple of sittings, without much thought or concentration. That book this weekend was Julia Keller’s “A Killing in the Hills.” It’s Keller’s first mystery—she’s a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in “real life”—and it fit my needs perfectly.
The story is brisk, easy to follow, and sufficiently suspenseful to make me want to avoid looking at my phone so I can finish one more chapter. (For those of you who know me personally, you know that is an accomplishment.)
The story takes place in a fictional town in West Virginia, and the lead character is a strong (almost too strong) female prosecutor, who returned to her community to help fight poverty, drugs and hopelessness. Her name is Bell Elkins, and I say she is almost too strong because at times she’s a downright jerk to her family, her staff and her friends. Remember Grisham’s brilliant Reggie Love in “The Client”? Similar character, but for some reason, I liked Reggie so much more. Elkins is troubled by a past that is revealed slowly throughout the novel—we eventually learn why she might be as cold to the touch as she is. But while the “reveal” of her true past, which comes very late in the novel, is a horrible story, it’s also a bit of a cliché in mystery novels and Law and Order episodes for that matter. It was fairly predictable.
A single mom, Bell has a daughter, Carla, who witnesses a triple homicide at the local diner. The murders are connected to the prescription drug problem in the town, and quickly we meet a mystery-character, the leader of the drug ring, who wants Bell dead next. You can pretty much figure out where it goes from there.
Carla, is a pretty typical angst-ridden teenager. But her actions sometimes don’t sync with the character Keller has developed. I think she tried to make Carla a kid with problems, but not too many problems to render her unlikable or permanently broken. It’s a tough challenge, because it feels less real. It is tough to believe that Carla who tries to solve the case and Carla who wants to move away are the same person. But then again, she’s a teenager, and what do I know about that?
Like so many great mystery novels, the setting is as much of a character as the individuals. (The well-read Executive Director at the Mercantile Library can provide a helpful list of the best mystery authors and their chosen locales. I may or may not have argued at one point that not every city can be the setting for a good mystery. Mr. Pyle, and now Ms. Keller, prove me wrong.)
That’s because Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, though fictional, is a great place for a mystery. When you think about it, West Virginia elicits as many stereotypes as New York City or Washington, D.C. If you’ve never been to West Virginia in the fall, you’ve missed one of the most beautiful states in America. Drugs have hurt these places as much as job losses have, and Keller, a native, nails the cultural highlights of this quirky state and the personalities of many of its residents.
Maybe the setting is so important because the plot isn’t. The story here follows a well-trodden path. Then again, it is a challenge to find a modern mystery/crime novel that doesn’t follow an existing formula. What makes this book unique is the textures of West Virginia. There are a couple of parts of the book that are underdeveloped, and a couple of plot points that are never revisited. I rolled my eyes at ridiculous dialogue a few times. (“He told me, Nick. Just before he died. I know who he was working for. I know who’s running the drug operation.”) And while the setting was spot on, the language could have been a bit more Appalachian in style. A few of the characters, like Rhonda Lovejoy, loudly demanded more page-time. But all my criticisms are forgiven because the book did its job. It entertained me.
The book ends with enough loose ends to stimulate a sequel or the ultimate goal of a mystery author—a series. I’d go back to Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, even with the hard-edged Bell.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. I bought “A Killing in the Hills” at Tattered Cover in Denver. I love that bookstore. We need a bookstore with that kind of character here. So I would like to reiterate my offer to open a really cool independent bookstore in Over-the-Rhine. If you are interested in loaning me a large sum of money, with no guarantee of any return on your investment, you know how to find me. Thanks.