A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller – a review

I had been hearing good things about critic Julia Keller’s first mystery, but didn’t pick it up until I found she would be moderating a panel at Bouchercon that I’m on. I always try to be familiar with panelists’ work, and this gave me the happy excuse to read a book that was already on my list. I’m so glad I read it. It’s top-notch.

The twinned ravages of poverty and drug addiction are destroying the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, a place that had always been hard-scrabble, but where there are now no jobs, not even ones that ended with black lung disease or a mine collapse, and where the once-tight bonds of family are coming unraveled. Bell Elkins got there first. Her family home went up in flames when she was ten years old, her sister sent to prison, the rest of her childhood spent in foster care. After marriage and escape from the mountains, she has returned with a daughter and a law degree to serve as the county attorney, prosecuting drug crimes with angry passion. Those crimes hit close to home when her sullen adolescent daughter witnesses a murder. Yet because she doesn’t want to tell her tightly-wound mother how she knows something about the crime, and because she resents the secrets her mother has kept from her, she decides to keep it to herself, a small bit of knowledge that she might be able to trade in someday for her mother’s respect.

Keller has created a vivid sense of place in Acker’s Gap, a place that shapes the people who live there. She provides so many visual cues and details of personality and characters’ relationships that at first I felt it was muffling the action like Kudzu vine, entangling and softening the edges of the tough subject matter. But I soon changed my mind. The place is part of the characters, and every one of the characters, however brief it seemed their appearance would be, turns out to be a part of the story. Here’s a taste of her style:

It was a shabby afterthought of a town tucked in the notch between two peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, like the last letter stuck in a mail slot after the post office has closed down for keeps. Acker’s Gap was situated within sight of the Bitter River, just over the ridge from the CSX Railroad tracks. It consisted of a half-dozen dusty, slanting downtown streets surrounded by several neighborhoods of older homes, two trailer parks, a tannery, a junkyard specializing in domestic auto parts, and a shut0down shoe factory ringed by a black-topped parking lot against which the weeds and the wadded-up Doritos bags and the crushed Camel packs were staging a hostile takeover . . . Just outside the city limits was a handful of played-out coal mines and, beyond and above them, the corrugated foothills of the Appalachians, their sides dense with sweet birch trees and scarlet oaks, the ground crowded with mountain laurel and black huckleberry.

That’s a lot of description (and I left some out); the post office simile is one of the little darlings that writing instructors often suggest should be murdered. But I began to appreciate this visual documentation as Keller’s way of honoring and preserving a place that is being changed for the worse. Her big, brooding mountain is a continual reference point in the book, but it’s the kind of landmark that is subject to the brutal economics of mountaintop removal, and the community in the mountain’s shadow is experiencing a new kind of poverty, one that has begun to consume the marrow of mountain life, family connections.

In a genre where tastes are often kept in neat boxes, with books designed from cover to contents to appeal to a particular audience, this novel is unusually approachable from many directions. Those who like character-driven stories in small town settings will find much to like, but those who want their crime fiction gritty and realistic, a fictional mirror of the times, will have that, too. Readers might be reminded of the Ballad books by Sharyn McCrumb, but I think a better likeness can be found in the novels of Denise Mina, which exhibit a similar refusal to confine themselves to the well-worn conventions of the genre’s niches or the easy comfort of larger-than-life villains. Keller finds all the material she needs in the reality of her native West Virginia, and where she excels is in bringing it to life on the page, with the beauty of the natural landscape, the sinewy strength of its history, and the squalid, sad, frustrating waste of so many lives.

6 Responses to A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller – a review

  1. Great review Barbara and not just because I agree with your opinion about the book. Though I do…read it some weeks ago now and still can remember it quite vividly which is not always a given…I loved the description of ‘the shabby afterthought of a town…’and didn’t know it was using some thing considered a no no in writing circles – I found that whole passage made it really wasy for me to picture the place and the juxtapostion of natural beauty with the decline of the man-made environment. Agree too there are similarities to Mina’s work

  2. Maxine says:

    Ditto, I really liked this book (knowing nothing about it or the author before I read it), and glad you did, too.

  3. Barbara says:

    Thanks – I found I loved the descriptions, though I did at first think of the “rules” that ask you to strip out anything that isn’t essential (unless you are writing literary fiction, I would guess…which seems often quite focused on describing things in clever ways, with momentum optional). It was such an interesting mix because it is quite a rich and loving picture of a place, which nevertheless doesn’t shy away from its very serious problems.

    I get a similar sense of fond frustrated affection in Denise Mina’s books for Glasgow. Perhaps its my advancing age, but I want some honest affection for humanity and for everyday experiences in my books, not just lyrical cynicism.

    • There are rules? such strict ones? who decides what is essential and what isn’t? I suspect this is why I get annoyed by the genre-isation of fiction – I like description when done well as it is here (or in the books of Adrian Hyland or Denise Mina as you compare her to). Books devoid of ‘non-essential’ description are (in my mind) things like Lee Child’s which I find boring and unengaging. So all power to the rule breakers :)

      • Barbara says:

        There are rules and rules. Elmore Leonard has ten of them (though makes it clear that you should break them if it is going to work). I think they are a mix of advice and a list of his pet peeves. Never start with the weather; never use any verb other than “said” to indicate who is talking – not “retorted” or “insisted” – and leave out the parts readers skip. But I also once skimmed through a “how to write a mystery” book (they are legion) and it was basically “here’s how to write a formula mystery.” That was kind of depressing, though helpful if that was what you were trying to do.

        But there are also creative writing class rules (or so I understand – having never taken one) which include not being too precious with your descriptions, or as it usually is relayed (and I have no idea who first said it) “you must murder your little darlings.”

        In Keller’s case, if there were any similes that made her smile, they probably were ones that made me smile too. There were a lot of them, and in other hands they could have been irritating, like those “aren’t I clever” lines of dialogue that private eyes often overdo, but she did it very well.

  4. kathy d. says:

    Very good review here. I agree with it wholeheartedly. What I found was that it zeroed in on a small town in West Virginia and showed the impact of the economic crisis on the people there — the joblessness or low-wage, dead-end jobs, foreclosures, car repossessions, lack of health insurance, hunger, hopelessness and desperation. The book said so much about this.
    This is all juxtaposed with the beauty of the environment.
    I didn’t catch any forbidden cliches so I was fine with the writing.
    It’s interesting that you compare this book with Denise Mina’s writing. I can see that.
    Now that I’m in the midst of Broken Harbor by Tana French, I’d say there are parallels here, too. There is the economic crisis n Ireland,, with the lay-offs and lack of income, with increasing desperation.
    These writers all look at the bigger picture. They’re writing a murder mystery in the context of larger social issues and crisis.
    For me this is always good. I can’t think of a better way to get the feel for a country, for a city, for what people are going through, than with a good mystery.

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