Review: LAST RAGGED BREATH by Julia Keller

LastRaggedBreathKellerAlmost 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 [2015]
ISBN 9781250044747
Length 372 pages
Format Hardback
Book Series #4 in the Bell Elkins series

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13 Responses to Review: LAST RAGGED BREATH by Julia Keller

  1. Isn’t Julia Keller fantastic, Bernadette? She certainly depicts that part of the US brilliantly. And her characters are nuanced and realistic. As you say, she knows what she’s doing with the mystery plot, too. I’m really, really glad you enjoyed this as much as you did.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kay says:

    I read A KILLING IN THE HILLS earlier this year and was really caught up in the setting and Bell’s life. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book and the next and….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kathy d. says:

    I read Keller’s first two books. There was some violence that was just not realistic for West Virginia, but the relationships and descriptions of poverty in the area are excellent. I don’t want to give spoilers but some types of violence just do not happen there.
    But I will read this one, thanks to your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting point about the unrealistic (for West Virginia) violence because that was my criticism of the first book which I enjoyed other than that. Maybe I won’t go back and check out the intervening books in the series at it seems this one has gotten the balance right – there really is no over the top violence at all here


  4. Robin says:

    Hi Bernadette

    Interesting that you and those above all loved this. I bought the entire series because of the enticing and almost-universally-favourable reviews. However, though the plotting and scenic material were excellent – I have friends in Shenandoah, Virginia – I personally found Keller’s characters very two-dimensional and couldn’t engage with them at all. As empathy for, or active dislike of the characters is essential for my enjoyment of a book I stopped bothering with the series after the second one.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Robin it would be dull if we all enjoyed the same things…I have often read glowing reviews of books/characters I did not enjoy at all and wondered if we read the same thing…I liked Bell and Nick very much but as with real life people we all respond very differently to everyone – I definitely agree with you that having characters you connect with in some way is a must have for reading enjoyment


  5. kathy d. says:

    Well, I don’t think there are terrorists in West Virginia, for one thing!


  6. kathy d. says:

    I am on p. 120 and think this is very well-written and the dynamics between long-time friends and former colleagues, Bell and Nick, to be very realistic and even painful.
    And I love the author’s love of dogs. Dealt with loss of a neighbor’s dog who I thought of as my step-dog and now adjusting to a new one who is different. Not as affectionate nor does she whine for me to pet her, but she has us running all over to get the balls she’s catching and refusing to bring to us. My only aerobic exercise.
    I’m glad you wrote the review so I picked up the book. I hope it stays as good as it is now and
    keeps me away from the dvd’s I seem to have become hooked on.
    And now I’m watching Brokenwood from New Zealand, beautiful place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the way she becomes a reluctant dog lover Kathy…thee’s something very realistic about the way it happens. I’m taking my god daughter and her brother out for lunch tomorrow … And their dog is coming too…she has all the humans in her life running around at her every whim including us finding a dog-friendly restaurant.

      Hope the book stays good for you


  7. kathy d. says:

    The book stayed good for me, spent my weekend riveted to it. Give if a 4.5 out of 1 to 5. The right perpetrator was caught. Only sad note other than the shooting of a friend was she had to give the dog back. Maybe she’ll acquire one in the next book.
    No crazy plot twists, a good mystery and I learned more about the coal mining industry and community. John Grisham’s Gray Mountain also has more information on coal mining in Appalachia and outrageous actions by Big Coal.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I haven’t read this, but I’m thinking of doing so now. As a proud West Virginian, we tend to be very protective of our home and how it is portrayed. .. But as in your description, for us it always comes back to “place. ” My husband often jokes that he doesn’t believe I can breath anywhere but in these mountains, and maybe he’s right. .. It is a rare kind of place that gets in your blood. ..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by. i have wondered what locals might think of this book – and its predecessor that I’ve read. The place is so vividly drawn but the realistic feel comes from the author showing both the good and bad things about the place…and I wonder how that might go down with people who live in the real world on which this is based…we humans seeming to struggle with criticisms and negative sentiments as we do. But overall I think Julia Keller has a huge amount of warmth for her native state and that does shine through in her writing so I hope you enjoy the book if you do read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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