Almost heaven, West Virginia. Or so I have always believed thanks to my mother’s love for John Denver albums. And though she depicts a more nuanced and more tragically flawed version of the place than Denver manages in the three or four minutes a song allows, Julia Keller’s book shows a similar kind of devotion to the area and the people who call it home. LAST RAGGED BREATH is more a long-form love song to place than it is a crime novel, though it’s no slouch on that front either.
As a mystery the book is, at least on the surface, simple and as far from the high body count thrillers the genre is known for. Edward Hackel, a salesman for a high-end resort scheduled to be built in the area, is murdered. Struck on the head with a shovel and dumped in a creek. Suspicion soon falls on Royce Dillard, an enigmatic loner whose personal story is dominated by his survival as a toddler of a disaster that killed over a hundred people including both his parents. Hackel has been badgering Dillard to sell some land the development project desperately needed but that Dillard wanted for his own dream project. Case closed.
Prosecutor Bell Elkins is troubled though. Not necessarily by the idea that Dillard is innocent, though he steadfastly claims to be, but by the reason for the killing. It doesn’t seem like a straightforward premeditated, murder and if there are mitigating circumstances Bell will be able to seek a lesser sentence than lifelong prison for Dillard. Who if not exactly liked by the residents of the fictional town of Acker’s Gap is understood and accepted.
But Bell has other worries too. Her good friend Nick Fogelsong is no longer the town’s Sheriff. He chose to walk away and Bell can’t forgive him even though on one level she understands his decision. Their friendship was rooted in their shared work and now they can’t talk over cases as they always did. What else is there? The exploration of this relationship is a highlight of the novel; real friendship being something of a rarity in a genre replete with lone wolf heroes. Both characters are depicted realistically in the way they cope, or don’t, with the changes life brings and few readers would fail to identify with some aspect of what one or other goes through over the course of this story.
In the end though, and despite a compelling narrative and a host of thoughtfully drawn characters, Keller always draws the reader back to place. We see the good and the bad. The poverty and the wealth. We see people clinging desperately to what little remains of the coal mining industry not because they are unaware of the damage coal does to the planet or those that mine it but because their alternatives are abject poverty or drug running. Or leaving. But as Nick reflects
There was a time when he’d envied anyone who left Acker’s Gap, when he watched them go and felt a kind of wild yearning, when he wondered why Bell Elkins had ever wanted to come back here – but something was shifting inside him. There was a certain solace to knowing a world this well. You knew its flaws, its shortcomings, just as you knew its beauties. And you learned to love it all. You loved the abundance of it, the sweep and immensity of the land, and you loved the sadness and the lack, too.
This is one of those books that I was sad to finish reading not because of the story, or at least not only because of the story, but because I could happily have read more. Fortunately for me I’ve only read the first of this book’s three predecessors, 2012’s A KILLING IN THE HILLS, so I can at least track down the other two. And why wouldn’t I? Keller is a truly gifted writer and the elements that didn’t quite work for me in that first novel are all gone here. LAST RAGGED BREATH is about as flawless as they come.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Minotaur Books 
Length 372 pages
Book Series #4 in the Bell Elkins series