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Book Author: Julia Keller

THE COLD WAY HOME by Julia Keller: Book Review

Julia Keller is absolutely one of my favorite authors.  The Cold Way Home is the eighth book in the Bell Elkins series and, like the others, it doesn’t disappoint.

There is a lot of backstory in each of the Elkins’ books, but Ms. Keller does an excellent job of bringing the new reader up-to-date without boring those who have read previous novels.  The most important thing to learn is that Bell was formerly the district attorney in the small rural town of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia; a felony she committed as a child and was unaware of has recently come to light and caused her disbarrment, the loss of her position, and a prison term.

Trying to put all that behind her but still use her legal and detecting skills, she has opened INVESTIGATIONS, a three-person firm that includes Nick Fogelman, the former sheriff, Jake Oakes, the former deputy sheriff, and herself.  The skill level of each one is high but so are the burdens each carries.  For Bell, it’s knowing that her older sister had protected her from the knowledge of Bell’s crime at a great cost to herself.  For Nick, it’s the end of his forty-year marriage.  For Jake, it’s the reality that he will be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life due to a shooting in the line of duty.

In this book, the third in the series dealing with legal and illegal drugs in West Virginia, the opening scene is a particularly harrowing one.  The sheriff’s department and the EMTs are called to the Burger Boss where a young couple is in the throes of drug addiction.  The young man is passed out, his head on the booth’s table, but the young woman has barricaded herself in the bathroom.

When Deputy Sheriff Steve Brinksneader pushes into the bathroom, one of the emergency technicians has already administered Narcan to counteract the effects of the heroin the woman had taken.  As Steve pulls the woman off the toilet, he glances inside it and sees the tiny body of a baby.

At the same time, Bell and her partners in INVESTIGATIONS have been hired to find Dixie Sue Folson, a teenager missing from home for three days; Maggie Folson thinks her daughter may have been abducted by her lowlife boyfriend.  Bell’s hunt for the girl leads her to the long-deserted grounds of Wellwood, a psychiatric hospital that burned to the ground decades earlier.  And there she finds a body, but it’s not that of Dixie Sue.

Julia Keller’s last three mysteries have focused on the opioid crisis that is rampant in West Virginia, her home state.  In 2017, West Virginia had the highest percentage of deaths due to drugs in the United States; the state held that title in 2016 as well.  So when Bell tells district attorney Rhonda Lovejoy, “Fate doesn’t need to be tempted….Expect the worst and you’re never disappointed,” it’s all too true.

Starting from the beginning of this series would be ideal, but starting is the operative word.  Each book is well worth reading, and together they form a picture, although a sad one, of the hardscrabble life all too prevalent in rural America today.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

BONE ON BONE by Julia Keller: Book Review

My friends and family know that I’m a fast reader and can read a book of 300 pages in a day if I’m not interrupted by unimportant things like cooking and cleaning.  But reading Bone on Bone so quickly is nearly a crime in itself, so beautifully written and poignant is the story.

Bone on Bone reads as a sequel to Ms. Keller’s previous mystery, Fast Falls the Night, in which she wrote about the opioid crisis that is creating devastation across the country.  Particularly hard-hit is West Virginia, the state where the novel takes place; it had the highest number of opioid deaths in the nation in 2016.

Acker’s Gap is certainly not immune to this epidemic.  Still reeling from the loss of mining jobs and the 2008 recession, the community’s young people have decided that their only escape from the despair of their town is via drugs.  Drugs and their devastating effects have reached into many families, including the well-to-do Toppings.

Tyler Topping, the couple’s teenage son, has been in and out of rehab almost more times than his parents can count.  As the story opens he’s again living at home per his counselor’s advice; however, he is back on heroin or whatever drugs he can get if “smack” is not available.  Of course, he has to sell drugs to feed his own habit, and if he can’t make enough by selling he steals from his parents, taking virtually everything in their home that isn’t nailed down.

At her wits’ end after trying to help her son and distraught at seeing her beloved husband frantic at being unable to keep their son away from drugs, Ellie Topping has decided she has no choice but to do the unthinkable–kill her son to prevent him from killing them through his actions.

As all this unfolds, Bell Elkins, the protagonist of Julia Keller’s series, has returned to Acker’s Gap after a three-year prison sentence.  In the preceding book, Bell’s sister Shirley, her only relative, made a startling confession.  Shirley had spent years in prison following her conviction for killing their physically and emotionally abusive father, but now that she is dying she tells Bell the truth.  It was the ten-year-old Bell who was the murderer; Shirley confessed to the crime rather than have her young sister jailed or sent to a detention center.

Although she could have avoided incarceration due to her age at the time of the murder and the confession of her sister, Bell insists on taking her punishment now.  Because she admitted committing a felony, in addition to her prison sentence she loses her position as county attorney and is disbarred.  Despite questions and pleas from her ex-husband, daughter, and former colleagues, she refuses to discuss the reasons she made Shirley’s dying confession public and insisted on going to jail.

Bone on Bone resonates as a cry from the heart by the author.  Every day in our country communities and families are going through unimaginable sadness due to the scourge of drugs.  She recognizes that there’s no easy solution but many share the blame–physicians who don’t monitor their patients’ drug use; drug companies that push drugs for every imaginable symptom; patients popping pills instead of doing the hard work of physical therapy and/or exercise to relieve their problems; teenagers looking for a thrill; parents denying their children’s addiction.

This is a moving novel and an outstanding mystery.  It is a worthy addition to the Bell Elkins novels; I’ve reviewed several of the previous books elsewhere on this blog.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


FAST FALLS THE NIGHT by Julia Keller: Book Review

West Virginia prosecutor Bell Elkins is back, and I am delighted.  I am totally devoted to Julia Keller’s series, and this is her most ambitious novel yet.

The novel begins with a painfully personal acknowledgement.  During the author’s recent visit to her hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, there was an epidemic of heroin overdoses, twenty-eight in a twenty-four period, with two fatalities.  The national scourge of drugs has severely impacted West Virginia; the state currently has the highest rate of overdoses in the country.

Ms. Keller has put her feelings into Fast Falls the Night, moving the drug crisis to Bell’s hometown.  Acker’s Gap is being particularly hard hit by heroin overdoses and deaths in the single day in which the novel takes place.  The first overdose takes place in The Marathon, a gas station/convenience store that’s manned during the evening hours by Danny Lukens.  He has given the key to the bathroom to a woman who, he’s sure, is going to use it to get high on heroin.  Not his business, he thinks to himself; he doesn’t want any trouble.  But after waiting for more than twenty minutes for the woman to come out, he goes to the restroom and calls through the closed door several times to see if she’s okay.

When there’s no answer, he calls the sheriff’s office and Deputy Jake Oakes arrives.  Having no better luck at getting the woman inside to respond or to open the bathroom door, Jake gets the key from Danny–the woman is lying in the middle of the dirty floor, her face blue, and a used syringe beside her.  That’s the first overdose and the first death.

Even worse than the simple fact of heroin is that carfentanil has been added to the drug that the town’s addicts are using.   It’s an ingredient a hundred times more potent than fentanyl and ten thousand times stronger than morphine and is used to stretch out heroin so that the original drug can be sold more profitably.

Given the incredible number of cases that are springing up all over town, and the underfunded police and district attorney’s offices, Bell is feeling overwhelmed.  There’s simply not enough money or personnel to deal with this problem, but what are the alternatives?  Just wait it out, Bell wonders, and allow the addicts to tempt death every time they inject themselves?  After all, if they don’t care about themselves, why should the police and the courts be concerned?  But, of course, Bell does care, and she’s trying to come up with a plan to get the contaminated drug off the streets.

The official reactions to this crisis are not the only moral points in Fast Falls the Night.  Deputy Jake Oakes is attracted to Molly Drucker, a local EMT, but either she’s not interested in him or something is stopping her from showing her interest.  Bell’s sister Shirley has two devastating pieces of news to give to Bell, her cancer diagnosis being the easier one to talk about.

And what can be done about Raylene Hughes, the negligent mother of an adorable daughter?  Is the child better off with her con-artist mother or with her father, a man whose war experiences and brain injury has made him unreliable and possibly violent?

Julia Keller’s latest mystery ends with as many questions as it answers, as is true of real life.  The characters in the novel, and the plot itself, are mesmerizing, and you will keep reading without letup until the last page.  And even then, you’ll be left wondering.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.




SORROW ROAD by Julia Keller: Book Review

A lot of years have passed since the invasion of Normandy, but apparently not enough.  At least not enough for old sins to be buried so deeply that they’ll never be uncovered.

Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney in rural Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is meeting an acquaintance, a Georgetown Law School classmate, for a drink.  Darlene Strayer and Bell weren’t close, but they both grew up in neighboring small towns in West Virginia and have successful careers, and that makes each one sort of an anomaly in that area of the country.  But while Bell left behind a lucrative career in the nation’s capital to return home, Darlene stayed, became a federal prosecutor and is now a successful litigator in a private firm.  So what could be the reason that she asks Bell to meet her at the Tie Yard Tavern, requesting her help?

Darlene tells Bell that her father, Harmon Strayer, died in a nursing home the previous week at the age of ninety.  Darlene had placed him there three years earlier when his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to live alone or to move to Washington to live with her.  He had been doing reasonably well until the past few months, but during each successive visit Darlene noticed his agitation growing.

She tells Bell that although she knew there was something wrong at Thornapple Terrace, it was easier to do nothing, to attribute her father’s emotional disturbances as increasingly visible signs of the progression of his dementia.  But now that he’s dead, Darlene feels she should have forced the home to do something, to pay attention to the way her father was behaving.  She thinks that his death, even considering his advanced age and mental condition, wasn’t natural or caused by negligence–she thinks he was murdered.

When Darlene leaves the tavern to drive home to D.C., after getting a reluctant promise from Bell to look into the situation unofficially, a brutal winter storm is in full force.  Just a few hours later, in the middle of the night, a deputy sheriff knocks on Bell’s door.  A trucker has found Darlene’s wrecked Audi and her body on the curve of a road nicknamed Help me Jesus for the many wrecks that have taken place there.

Bell’s name was found on a note in Darlene’s coat pocket, the deputy sheriff said; the car smelled of alcohol and Darlene had vomited before the crash.  That doesn’t make sense, Bell thinks, because during the whole time the two women had been talking in the tavern, Darlene had never taken even one sip from the drink in front of her.

Sorrow Road then flashes back to 1938.  Harmon Strayer, Vic Plumley, and Alvie Sherrill were inseparable, and three years later they went off to war together, taking part in the Normandy invasion.  The friends had never been out of West Virginia before that, and even though each was secretly frightened, together the threesome acquitted themselves well and returned to the admiration of the townspeople of Norbitt, West Virginia.  But something had happened to them during the war that changed them, not in a good way, forever after.  Now the past apparently has caught up with Harmon Strayer.

I am a fervent admirer of Julia Keller’s series.  Her writing is outstanding, her characters shaded and believable, and her plots take the reader along for an exciting ride.  This is the fifth book in the Bell Elkins series; I strongly suggest you read the other four as well.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this web site.

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




BITTER RIVER by Julia Keller: Book Review

Bell Elkins is a small-town girl who has made good.  She managed to leave the coal-mining town of Acker’s Gap, where she grew up in a motherless home with an abusive father, get herself a law degree, and work in Washington, D. C. with her husband.  A perfect professional and personal life, it would seem.

But after a few years, Acker’s Gap, with all its problems of poverty, unemployment, and drug use drew her back.  Bell felt she could make a difference there that she couldn’t in the nation’s capital.  So she and her daughter returned to West Virginia, a place her husband, a highly successful attorney, was only to happy to leave behind.

A second reason for returning home for Bell is her superstition/belief that her older sister would someday return there to find her.  Shirley had protected Bell from their father’s sexual advances during her childhood, and when it became impossible to continue doing that, Shirley murdered their father and set fire to their home.  Shirley was released from prison two years before this novel opens but never returned to Acker’s Gap; Bell fears that if she left town permanently, her sister would never be able to find her.

As Bitter River, the second book in this series, opens, Bell is driving home from Washington.  During the trip, she receives a call from Nick Fogelsong, sheriff of Raythune Country and a close friend.  The body of Lucinda Trimble has been found in the Bitter River.  Lucinda, a shining academic and sports star at the local high school, was dead before her car hit the water, Nick says, so this is not an accident.  It’s murder.

Although still in high school, Lucinda was engaged to Shawn Doggett, son of the town’s wealthiest family.   The Doggetts, particularly Mrs. Doggett, were less than thrilled with this, especially given the fact that Lucinda was pregnant and was resisting all attempts by the Doggetts and her own mother to give the baby up for adoption.

While all this is going on, an old friend of Bell’s, Matt Harless, a CIA agent, presumably retired, has come to town for a brief respite.  He tells Bell he remembers her talking about her town, about the beauty of the mountains, and he’s decided that a visit is what he needs before he makes any future plans.  But strange things start happening shortly after his arrival, leaving Bell to wonder if they’re coincidental or somehow related to Harless.

Julie Keller paints a vivid picture of Acker’s Gap and the people in it.  It’s a place that, on the surface, seems removed from the rest of 21st-century America, but a deeper look reveals the same problems that the rest of the country has–high school dropouts, high unemployment, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

Bell Elkins is a tough, determined protagonist.  Her roots in her home town are strong, even with the memories of the abusive childhood she and her sister shared.  This novel makes me hope that the third entry in the series won’t be long in coming.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this web site.

You can read my post of A Killing in the Hills, the first in the Bell Elkins series, on this blog.  Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.






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.