Like many of you, I read fiction to escape, but I'm not much for formula novels, which tend to bore me quickly. Instead, I love that genre that we refer to in library land as "psychological novels." These are stories that are character driven, letting us inside the heads of the major players, as we seek to know what motivates some people to do terrible things and some people to pursue truth. I also love novels that are deeply atmospheric. I like to be transported to another place or time via descriptive prose, along with thinking about how location might influence the behavior of a novel's characters.
You can, though, have a strong setting and loads of character development, and be bored to death, if the plot is neglected. When an author hits the trifecta of atmosphere, character, and fast-paced plot line, you have a truly great read, particularly in the mystery and suspense genre.
Julia Keller is on my list of writers to watch. Last year, Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (always a good sign), published A Killing in the Hills, her first novel. Set in the mountains of West Virginia, the prologue opens with a woman named Bell standing at the scene of a devastating fire long past. The frightening screech of an owl warns of the "terrible crime" that took place at the site, and Keller lets us know that the woman has no need to visit this place often, because "the past travelled with her."
Next we are transported to the scene of a bored teenage girl at work in a small-town diner. Her adolescent reflections on the disgustingness of three older men are quickly interrupted when the trio is shot dead at point blank range in between coffee sips. News travels fast in a small town, and Raythune County prosecutor Bell Elkins rushes onto the scene to make sure her daughter Carla, the teenage witness to the murders, is unharmed.
This isn't the kind of thing that happens in broad daylight in sleepy Acker's Gap, West Virginia. Or is it? Mining and manufacture, industries long gone, have left the hills not just hopeless, but ripe for further degradation in the form of the illegal prescription drug trade. Thirty-nine-year-old Bell has spent five years witnessing this devastation, but is determined to fight. She suspects this case is drug related.
Keller weaves and twists an intricate tale, including a subplot involving a case in which Bell must decide how to prosecute a locally mentally challenged man who has, perhaps unintentionally, murdered his six-year-old playmate. Bell is intensely private, and as the novel progresses we learn of the painful past (involving that burned-out mountain site mentioned above) that motivates her to pursue justice for the folks of her county. The plot thickens as Carla remembers that she's seen the diner shooter in the past, and decides to work on her own to prove herself to her mother, with disastrous results. We even get inside the head of more than one ruthless killer. If this sounds like a juggling act of plot lines and character development, it is; one that Keller masterfully manages at a breathtaking pace.
A Killing in the Hills is taut, mesmerizing, and filled with the gorgeous eeriness that only a mountain setting can evoke. It is about hope and hopelessness, about the way circumstance impacts who we become, about the beauty and the ugliness that lies at the depths of each of our hearts. It is a murder mystery, but it is much more. Rarely does an author produce a cast of so many characters and make each of them more than just a good or a bad guy. You will mourn for the mountains as you read this novel, yet be moved by the steely determination of its inhabitants.
A second novel featuring Bell is in the works, and It won't be soon enough when I get to visit Acker's Gap again.