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A KILLING IN THE HILLS by Julia Keller: Book Review

The brooding mountains of West Virginia hang over the small town of Acker’s Gap. And so do poverty, ill health, and lack of education.  It’s a tough place to live, but attorney Bell Elkins has returned home from a more affluent life in Washington, D.C. to “give back” to her community.

Bell, short for Belfa, had a hard childhood in Acker’s Gap.  Her mother deserted the family when Bell was six, leaving Bell’s older sister Shirley to cope with grinding poverty and their drunken, abusive father.  Bell doesn’t talk about her sister any more, hasn’t seen her in nearly thirty years, and Bell’s daughter Carla wonders what the mystery is.

The drug problem in the state, and particularly in small towns such as Acker’s Gap, is growing fast. Spurred by lack of employment and poor educational opportunities, prescription drugs have made big inroads into the town, bringing increased crime to its citizens.  Still, the whole town is shocked when a trio of elderly men, sitting over their morning coffee at the Salty Dawg fast-food restaurant, is gunned down in front of the other diners.  And Bell’s daughter, Carla, is a witness to the carnage.

There are three narratives in A Killing in the Hills. The prologue and much of the story is told by Bell.  The first chapter is told by Carla, an unhappy sixteen-year-old, who is sitting at the Salty Dawg when a gunman comes in and shoots the three men.  In the seconds it takes before the shooter runs away, Carla catches a glimpse of his face, a “piggy face” that stirs a memory.  The third narrator is Charlie Sowards, the hired gun, whose dismal life has led him to murder for hire at the behest of a powerful figure.  And the next victim, Charlie is told, will be Bell.

Bell Elkins is a complex protagonist. She grew up in a life of grinding poverty and abuse, married her high school sweetheart, went to college and law school, had a child, and was headed for a comfortable life in the nation’s capital.  But she felt compelled to return to her hometown and offer what she could to the community.  Her husband, by that time a very successful lawyer-turned-lobbyist, wanted no part of the life he’d gladly left behind, so Bell returned home with her young daughter and carved out a life as a single mother and prosecuting attorney.

The influx of prescription drugs into the state and more specifically her community has strengthened Bell’s resolve to stay in Acker’s Gap despite the hand-to-mouth life she’s living.  But with the downturn in the state’s never-robust economy, there’s less and less money available for criminal investigation and fewer people on Bell’s staff.  Bell’s closest friends, sheriff Nick Fogelsong and Ruthie and Tom Cox, help out as much as they can, but between the demands of a never-ending workday and a rebellious teenage daughter, Bell’s life seems to be in a downward spiral.

Julia Keller has perfectly captured life in this small town, a place with almost no resources and a population with few opportunities.  Her portrait of young people who either drop out of school or finish high school only to find that the best jobs in their hometown are flipping burgers is a searing one.   Sketches of children who are undersized because of lack of food or are missing teeth because they’ve never seen a dentist will make readers wonder if this is America or a third world country.

Julia Keller’s first book is an absolute winner. You can read more about her at her web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

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