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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.




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.