The tone of Last Ragged Breath is set on the book’s first pages when Goldie, a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix, is running joyously along the bank of Old Man’s Creek after “something [that] smelled mighty good — that is, powerful and unusual.”
In this fourth installment in her radiant series of Bell Elkins crime novels, Julia Keller writes:
The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating…Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees…[T]he smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance… It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn’t get any more wonderful.
Goldie finds the source of the smell in a brown mass in the water, exuding the “strong smell [that] was still pleasurable but also perplexing.” She waits as the man who has taken her on this walk climbs down the side of the bank to investigate.
What he finds is a body and, separated from it, “like a bobbing beach ball,” a human head.
Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of lament that was as mindlessly instinctive to her as was her earlier devotion to the voluptuous smell of death.
“Hunger and beauty”
Last Ragged Breath is a book about beauty in decay, beauty in squalor, beauty in a West Virginia that had fallen on hard times that are getting harder. It’s about saints who are sinners, and sinners who are saints. About the kind of people who populate great literature, and the world in which they live.
Consider turkey vultures.
One night, Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney in Raythune County, is standing in the middle of a farm field when she is startled to hear “the dramatic flapping sound” of a group of turkey vultures overhead, a sound “like the sexy rustle of silk or the preliminary shifting of a heavy velvet theater curtain just before the show commences.”
She knows that most people are repulsed by the birds for feeding on dead animals, chewing on the carrion, ripping out entrails. But she admires them:
They were nature’s cleanup crew. They were just doing their job. If they were interrupted, they took to the air, and there they were majestic. Wings spread, superbly balanced, they were in their element, rising higher and higher on spirals of air, poised between the red carnage on the ground and the blue promise of the sky.
The flap of those wings was a sound you never forgot. It was a sound that told a story. An ancient one, filled with hunger and beauty.
Nothing as simple
Last Ragged Breath is a mystery of great literary depth. It has to do with the murder of the man whose body was found by Goldie in Old Man’s Creek.
It also has to do with the real-life 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in which 125 people were killed and thousands left homeless.
In Keller’s novel, Royce Dillard, a two-year-old boy, survives the flood, saved by what an eyewitness said was the heroic act of his father “who used his last ragged breath” to throw the boy to waiting hands on a rise out of the path of the raging wall of water.
Now, more than 40 years later, Royce has been charged with killing a man he had threatened and throwing the body in Old Man’s Creek.
Yet, nothing is as simple as it seems.
As in any community, any society, Raythune County is the mosaic of the stories of all the people who live and have lived there. None of these stories is simple. Heroism is found cheek-to-jowl with abandonment. Affection with anger.
Royce himself, writing an account of his life since the flood, explains that his Aunt Bessie told him what she could about his parents as well as about those 123 other people killed in the flood.
Now, Bessie made it clear that these people weren’t saints. “Saints do not exist on this earth,” was how she’d put it to me. “Only us sinners, doing the best we can every day to rise above our sinful urges. The saints are all up in heaven. We are trying to get there ourselves by doing good works, but you should never believe that there are any saints here on earth, Royce.”
Those are the people who populate Last Ragged Breath — saintly sinners, sinful saints — just as in Keller’s three earlier novels in this sterling series.
“A secret cache of diamonds”
Nothing is as simple as it seems — not even coal.
For decades, the mineral provided the people of West Virginia with good paying jobs, even as it ruined the health of miners and even as the coal companies cut corners in ways that led to disasters like the Buffalo Creek Flood.
Now, the mines are all but closed because coal has been demonized for causing air pollution and climate change. And one of the demonizers is Bell’s friend David Gage, a professor of environmental sciences at West Virginia University,
“There’s more to a coal mine than just the negatives,” she tells him. “There’s something also magical down there.”
He’s skeptical so she arranges to take him into a mine to show him what she means:
The light from the lamp on her helmet struck the dark wall, and it was as if a secret cache of diamonds had suddenly spilled in their laps. Tiny chips of mica in the rock glittered in a rippling swath. These points of light…seemed to leap and dance like living things….
[I]t was as if Bell and David stood in the heart of a dense forest, one that quivered with thousands of fireflies, or perched in the midst of a night sky that seethed with stars.
Coal, turkey vultures, “the voluptuous smell of death,” people who are a mix of sin and saintliness — this is the complex world of Raythune County where Bell lives.
And where, through the artistry of Julia Keller, we readers are able to visit.
Patrick T. Reardon