Julia Keller’s novel “A Killing in the Hills” is on a par with the best of James Lee Burke and P.D. James.
It is a mystery story of high literary ambition and quality. Like her bestselling peers, Keller employs the mystery formula as vehicle for looking at the way people act, live and breathe in a particular spot on the world and for examining the meaning of life.
For P.D. James, the spot is London, and murder is a breaking of the social compact, a disordering of the order of life.
For James Lee Burke, the spots are New Orleans and Texas, and murder is an outbreak of the violence just under the human surface, a violence that sparks more violence.
In “A Killing in the Hills,” Keller is writing about Acker’s Gap, a small ragged town in West Virginia, the state where she was born and raised. For her, murder here is a spasm of despair and greed, coming out of physical and economic isolation, a cry of anguish from the margins of human society.
Sour and aimless
Acker’s Gap, the county seat of Raythune County, is like thousands or maybe tens of thousands of once vibrant rural villages that are now sour and aimless because of the death of a major industry — in the case of Acker’s Gap, mining — and the resulting loss of jobs, options and hope.
The prosecuting attorney is Belfa “Bell” Elkins. She was one of the lucky ones. She and her husband Sam and their baby daughter Carla were able to escape to Washington, D.C. Their goal had been simply to settle “somewhere that wasn’t hemmed in by the mountains and by the dark fatalism that seemed to throw shadows over [Acker’s Gap] even more effectively that these mountains did.”
Yet Bell, feeling out of place in D.C., was drawn back to the town, even though it meant the end of her marriage and the additional burden of being a single parent to Carla. She was drawn back, it seems, by the need to make a difference, but also to wrestle with unfinished business.
As the novel opens, three old men, longtime friends, are sitting around at table at the fast food franchise Salty Dog and laughing when, suddenly, shots explode in quick succession, and all three are dead.
No one gets a good look at the gunman except 16-year-old Carla. He’s a boy — she doesn’t know his name — whom she saw selling drugs at a party.
She knows she’ll get in trouble for being at that kind of a party so Carla keeps quiet about what she knows. Instead, she decides to find out on her own who they boy is.
“A real number on his teeth”
Drugs are rampant in Raythune County, and those like Bell and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong who combat the dealers are akin to doctors laboring mightily to save a cancer-ridden patient already in poor health.
The killer, who calls himself Chill, is the embodiment of much that has long gone wrong in the county.
He had three teeth missing, one right up front, two on the side. He liked that; he thought it tipped people off that he’d been in enough fights to not care about getting in one more, and that maybe they ought not mess with him.
Actually, he’d lost the teeth the old-fashioned way. Nobody had ever taken him or his brothers or his sister to the dentist. He was nineteen years old now and the Mountain Dew he’d been drinking all day, every day, ever since he was a kid had done a real number on his teeth.
“Like a bag of laundry”
Chill’s father who scavenged for scrap metal he could sell died drunk on a Saturday night, slamming his car into a tree when the boy was 10. Here’s how Chill’s brother told him about the accident:
They couldn’t find a whole piece of him nowhere. He was spread out all over the place. Looked like a bag of laundry somebody’d dumped along the road. Dang.
It isn’t that Chill’s experience is so unusual in Acker’s Gap. It’s that it’s so common, even in Bell’s family.
Most people in and around the town live diminished lives. Many in squalor. Many more lacking any sort of direction. And, as landscapes do, the mountains that loom over Acker’s Gap has taken on psychological import to reflect the life in the town.
As Bell drove down the mountain, the trees on both sides of the road seemed to do what they’d done on her way up, which was to close in slowly over the top of her SUV, leaning in, branches intersecting. Creating a dark and solemn arch. She loved these mountains, loved their raw beauty, but it was a wary, curious love, the kind of love you might have for a large animal with a vicious streak. You could love it all you liked, but you couldn’t ever turn you back on it. You had to respect the fact of its wildness. It was a wildness that would outlast your love.
Chill has similar thoughts. He looks at the crowd of cars elbowing their way into and out of the parking lot at a local 7-Eleven, and thinks of it as a metaphor for West Virginia — “the dirty pickups and the cars with mufflers hoisted up and tied there with rope. Kids crammed in the backseats, looking out the side windows, and if you looked back at them, they gave you the finger.”
This is great stuff, it seems to me. But maybe I’m biased. Julia Keller and I are friends from when we both worked at the Chicago Tribune.
However, I have to say that I picked up “A Killing in the Hills” with some trepidation. Many newspaper reporters have been successful in journalism, but have fallen on their faces when they tried their hand at fiction.
Julia had a sparkling career in journalism. In 2005, she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for a gripping account of the ten seconds in which a tornado hit the small Illinois town of Utica.
But it’s one thing to write news and features. Fiction requires another part of the brain — the creativity, the imagination, that can only be employed in very limited ways in non-fiction.
In non-fiction, it’s against the rules for a writer to make things up. In fiction, the whole point is to make things up.
I’m happy to say that it turns out Julia is very good at making stuff up.
Patrick T. Reardon