Review: A KILLING IN THE HILLS by Julia Keller

As I remarked in a comment left at the first review I saw of this book it’s becoming clear that one of the reasons the newspapers I read are so full of underwhelming journalism these days is that all the best journalists have turned to writing crime fiction. And who can blame them? Whereas in the media they must try to satisfy a plethora of masters (owners, bosses, readers (and their subset – the vitriolic commenters on newspaper websites), advertisers) in crime fiction they can often tell stories that get to the very heart of things in a way that can be prevented in factual reporting. As the latest in a long line of journalists-turned-crime writers Julia Keller has hit the ground running.

A KILLING IN THE HILLS is, in many ways, quite breathtaking. It is ostensibly the story of the investigation into the shooting of three elderly men in a restaurant in the small (fictional) town of Acker’s Gap in West Virginia. But that’s really only a plot device (and not always a well conceived one) for an exploration of a rural community overwhelmed by poverty and all of its associated problems.

The human star of the book is Belfa (Bell) Elkins, prosecuting attorney for Raythune County and mother of 16 year old Carla who was in the restaurant at the time of the shooting. Bell’s had a tough life, perhaps best evidenced by the fact that being orphaned at age 10 probably wasn’t the worst thing that had occurred in her young life. However as a teenage mother she escaped the town with her high school sweetheart, went to law school and looked set for a high-flying career in Washington DC. But then she felt the pull of return to Acker’s Gap. With practical skills and empathy she thought she could make a real difference in her home town. When her husband remained resolutely uninterested in returning she and her daughter went alone. Bell believes that the single biggest positive influence she can have is to help crack down on the area’s flourishing drug industry, a task she tackles with the obsessiveness of a zealot. As well as giving her character some unlikeable traits (she can be fairly dismissive of anyone or anything that isn’t focussed on this which particularly impacts on her daughter) this makes Bell a target for the area’s drug bosses.

The non-human star in A KILLING IN THE HILLS is the setting. Acker’s Gap is described as “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 been closed down for keeps”. Its industries – a closed shoe factory and played out coal mines – are only memories and “weeds, wadded-up Doritos bags and crushed Camel packs are staging a hostile takeover” of deserted parking lots. But there is beauty too – especially in the late spring when “….the tree-lined valleys exploded in a green so vivid and yet so predictable that it was like a hallelujah shout at a tent revival. You always knew it was coming but it could still knock you clean off your feet.”

But setting is not only about physical space. It’s also about the people who live in it and the society they construct for themselves. And the community in this novel is hurting. With few jobs to offer and an economy that is barely functional there’s little wonder that many people, including the novel’s killer who is revealed early on, choose to become involved in the drug trade Bell hates so much. But even many of those who don’t stray into that territory are on a hiding to nowhere. Of one of the teenage girls we meet (whose name I won’t include in this quote to prevent spoiling a sub plot) Keller writes “The [girl’s name] of this world didn’t go looking for trouble; they slid into it, like a cheap shack built on a muddy hillside that ends up in the creek. When the rain came – and the rain always came – down they went, scooting and sliding and making excuses and telling stupid lies as they rode the ooze to the bottom“.

With such imagery-laden writing Keller has made it easy for the reader to imagine themselves in the world she has created.

Writing some reviews I scrabble to find enough to highlight about a book to give anyone enough sense of the thing to make a decision about whether they think they’d like to read it. But with this book I feel I could go on forever. I haven’t talked about the sad sub plot that wends its way through the book to highlight that even the most obvious things are not always as they first appear. Or the way Bella’s past plays into the story. Or the many fine character portraits besides Bell’s. But you have to stop somewhere right?

The book is not without faults. The main plot really doesn’t work and the dénouement, with its revelation of the town’s Mr Big of the drug trade, borders on the laughably incredible. And I’d have liked the book to explore other ways of dealing with the drug problem than laws and long jail sentences (though I’ll concede this probably says more about my own beliefs than it does about the book). But despite these flaws I still think it’s a great book and heartily recommend it. The hints of future storylines are, for me, a welcome promise of more to come from this fine début novelist.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

A KILLING IN THE HILLS has been reviewed glowingly at Aunt Agatha’s, Criminal Element and Petrona (home of my fairy godmother) and also at Book’d Out where Shelleyrae liked the setting but was less taken with the other elements of the novel.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4.5/5
Publisher Headline [2012]
ISBN 9780755392872
Length 370 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #1 in the Bell Elkins series
Source I received a copy from my fairy godmother

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15 Responses to Review: A KILLING IN THE HILLS by Julia Keller

  1. Sarah says:

    I read Shelleyrae and Maxine’s reviews and I’m still undecided on this one. I agree with your comments about journalists turning their hands to crime fiction.


  2. Kathy D. says:

    Great to read another good review of this book. After reading Petrona’s, I found the book in my local library system and put it on reserve. Now that I read this review, I will now impatiently wait for this book. A book with a woman protagonist, a lawyer and an excellent sense of place is a win-win for me. I cannot wait to read this except that I am reading an excellent book by Angela Savage and have quite a pile of books. So I may have to get to Appalachia in via Thailand, Ireland, Canada and elsewhere. However, books with attorneys pull me in like a magnet, especially if they get stellar recommendations. This book is moved up on my list, but I have to wait.
    I agree with you about the drug problem. Over here it’s getting worse because of the lack of jobs in so many areas. In my own city, I can feel the desperation growing. New York City has more than 10% unemployment.
    I’ll pass along the word about Julia Keller. So glad to hear of her.
    Do you compare the sense of place its characters at all to the superb Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, although the story line is different?


    • Funny you should ask that about CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER Kathy as I was reminded of it in some ways. I didn’t add that to my review because I thought there probably weren’t that many similarities other than they are both small, poor towns in America and I probably thought they were similar because my exposure to such places is limited. I wonder if an American reader would even see the similarities – will be curious to hear what you think when you get your copy from the library.


  3. Maxine says:

    Great review, Bernadette, I am so glad you liked this book. Like you, I found the portrait of the community and some of its characters, as well as Bella, the best parts about it.


  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – An excellent review (as always!) for which thanks. I’ve been to West Virginia a few times so I was immediately drawn to the setting when I first read about this novel. It’s good to hear that the characters and the setting make the novel so strong. Thanks for putting this one back on my radar.


  5. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it Bernadette. I agree the social setting is as intriguing as the landscape and I probably didn’t make that clear in my review.

    PS: the link for my blog links to criminalelements instead 🙂


  6. Rob Kitchin says:

    okay, I’ll put this one on the to-be-read list. Sounds like it has promise even if it has faults. I once gave a talk in the mountains of West Virginia. Beautiful place, but slightly otherworldly.


  7. I took a nice long drive to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginina and enjoyed the whole weekend. I also drove to several of the little towns nearby and I was enchanted. I was instantly captivated by your review. My TBR list is longer than both my arms and the block I live on but I just can’t pass on A Killing in the Hills.


  8. Kathy D. says:

    Coincidentally, I just looked at the back cover of this book, which I got out of the library. There is a quote praising it by Tom Franklin, the author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.


  9. Kathy D. says:

    This book is definitely at 4.5. I’m still in West Virginia and enjoying this book. There is so much to it. It is unputdownable.


    • Glad you are enjoying it Kathy


      • Barbara says:

        I just read it – finally – and loved it, too. Same issues about the plot, but it honestly didn’t diminish my enjoyment much that the big reveal was a little clunky. I thought the portrayal of the main antagonist (who we meet early on) was quite good and (sadly) believable. A stupid, yet vain and feckless man who is more inspired by the movies than by common sense. I also thought Bell’s pursuit of drugs as the one problem that she had to try to solve was interestingly myopic, but consistent with the character to have that kind of bull-headed throw-everything-at-the problem approach that unfortunately won’t fix the underlying issues. That, to me, paired nicely with the fact that she wanted so desperately to connect with her daughter, but still routinely forgot to come home at a predictable time. (I thought the way the story depicts the anxious impossibility of professional women striking a good work/life balance was uncomfortably spot-on.)


        • Am so glad you loved the book too Barbara. You’ve hit on one of the main reasons I loved it – Bell and her imperfections. It’s starting to become very clear to me that flawed characters like Bell are my very favourite type – not completely likeable (sometimes even ripe for a virtual slap) but very believably human. The kind that make me reflect on my own behaviour and actions.and even make me think about what might be going on underneath the surface for people I know in the real world. Jolly good writing that.


  10. Kathy D. says:

    I liked Bell even though she was stubborn and did go after the problem but not the underlying causes. I hope that we hear more from Julia Keller about Bell and her corner of West Virginia. Also, I’d like to see what happens with her daughter, Carla.


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