'A Killing in the Hills' not your typical murder mystery

By Books Editor Claire Bushey

"A Killing in the Hills" handles violence differently than the typical murder mystery, where too frequently it seems the body is there just to give the detective something to do. The violence depicted in the new novel by Julia Keller is true to life in that it is swift, stupid and life-altering, with the echoes lingering for decades. That’s how it works: Everything is ordinary right up until the moment when it’s not, and then nothing is the same again.

Until June, Keller wrote for the Chicago Tribune as the paper's cultural critic. But she grew up in West Virginia, and "A Killing in the Hills," her first novel, is set there in the podunk town of Acker's Gap. County prosecutor Bell – short for Belfa – Elkins is trying to solve the murder of three retirees gunned down while sipping their morning coffee at a local diner. Her daughter Carla witnesses the killing, which may be linked to the prescription drug trafficking eating away at West Virginia’s rural communities. Soon Carla is being sucked into the investigation even as the violence sucks Bell backward into memories of her own violent past.

A woman who left West Virginia but returned, Elkins is gritty proof that the past retains its pull. Elkins is the novel’s balanced heart: principled, stubborn, one of the ones who "cultivated their fierceness like a cash crop." The slow unspooling of the mystery surrounding her childhood is the novel’s big payoff. The revelations arrive just as the reader starts to chafe at the wait, like feeling hungry and checking the clock to find its lunchtime.

It says something about me or about the cultural landscape that I didn’t view the book’s opening crime as particularly lurid. Either way, the commentary isn’t flattering. Three old men shot to death. Oh, well. No serial killer, no torture. Nothing to shock. Until I read further. The book shows how interwoven the lives of the residents of Acker’s Gap are, and so we come to know, and mourn, the victims through the gaping holes their deaths leave in other townspeople’s lives. When one of the victim’s grandsons, initially a suspect, tells Elkins his cuss of a grandfather sold his beloved tool set to help his grandson get his life together, it squeezes the heart. The horror of the killings grows as the book progresses.

The language, too, is a higher grade here than a run-of-the-mill murder mystery. Evocative sentences rain down from page to page. When Keller describes the mastermind behind the murder, who has just threatened his own hit man, she writes: "When the boss was stressed, worried, it was like he reverted back. Back to something that came before all the smoothness, all the tidiness. That lived with him but stayed hidden, like an animal kept under the porch." That’s a champion turn of phrase: not only sinister, but bound up in the book’s Appalachian setting.