My husband often says to me, “Kris, you’re a good writer; you ought to write a book. You could write as good a novel as any of those you read.” My friends, if that were only true….. I occasionally get lulled into thinking about that possibility. And then I read a book like Bitter River, by Julia Keller.
The reality is that I love good writing. I love when an author’s words can so absorb me that I find whole lumps of time have gone by without my being aware of it. A novel will grab me if, as I read, I can really picture in my mind the area where the novel is taking place. I like to be able to understand a character, even if I don’t necessarily want to be that person’s BFF.
And I would never be satisfied with a piece of my work that didn’t bring about that kind of experience to a reader.
Julia Keller’s writing is beautiful and compelling. Her two novels (A Killing in the Hills was the first in the series) take place in the small town of Ackers Gap, West Virginia, a former mining town whose residents are struggling to make ends meet. The protagonist, Bell Elkins, was born in Ackers Gap, but left to attend college and law school. She married and practiced law in Washington, DC. She has subsequently divorced and moved back to her home town where she is the county prosecutor. She has a rather dark back story that I won’t reveal, but it makes her a somber and not particularly warm and fuzzy character.
Ackers Gap is no Mitford, NC, or Watervalley, TN, my friends. The town is poor. Buildings are boarded up. The people are uneducated. A drug problem plagues the young people of the county. And apparently a murder takes place every few months so that Keller can write her book.
As I intimated, I don’t particularly like Bell Elkins. Well, that’s not really true. I find the fact that she has gotten where she is following her back story to be remarkable, so I have a lot of admiration for her. I just wouldn’t want to hang out with her. She is really serious. Not a lot of laughs.
In Bitter River, one of the town’s teenagers is found in her car at the bottom of one of the town’s rivers. She was killed prior to her car being pushed into the water. She is pregnant.
The plot revolves around trying to figure out who killed the young girl, and the suspects seem obvious. There is a subplot around someone apparently trying to do harm to the people of Ackers Gap, for reasons unknown until the end.
One of the things I like about the books is the relationship between Bell and the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong. He is also a lifelong resident of Ackers Gap, and has watched Bell grow up. He knows all about her life and what she went through as a child. They have a great friendship that hasn’t, and, (please God, won’t) become a love affair. I find a man and a woman being being simply friends to be so refreshing. He is a wonderful character. Now him, I think, I could befriend.
I read a lot of mysteries. So I should be pretty good at being able to figure out who is the murderer by now. I must admit, I rarely do. But I think most readers will be caught off guard by the outcomes in both of Keller’s books.
I highly recommend this book if you are interested in reading a richly plotted, beautifully written novel that won’t necessarily leave you smiling. But it won’t give you nightmares if you read it before bed. It’s worth reading just for Keller’s writing.