I enjoy good books for lots of different reasons. I’m not necessarily a purist. I can enjoy a lighthearted read that I recognize isn’t great literature just because I enjoy the story and like not having to think too much. I am a big fan of really good dialogue, and sometimes even if the story isn’t necessarily terribly compelling, I might enjoy the book because of what’s being said. And I love a good mystery.
Summer of the Dead, by Julia Keller, is the third and latest in a series about prosecutor Bell Elkins who has returned to her roots in a small town in West Virginia. Keller’s books are not lighthearted, but all three of her books have had the same result – I haven’t been able to put them down. Each one is better than the last.
I love the characters, largely because they are not perfect. Bell simply can’t find a way to be happy, it seems. Her daughter currently lives in Washington D.C. with Bell’s ex-husband. She was supposed to come home to Bell for the summer, but went to Europe instead. Bell’s sister Shirley, fresh out of prison, has come to live with Bell until she can get settled. Drama ensues.
Three seemingly unrelated murders take place in the small town of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, and Keller gives us all sorts of red herrings to distract us. The ending took me completely by surprise. As an avid mystery reader, that rarely happens.
In Summer of the Dead, we meet Lindy Crabtree, the daughter of a coal miner who suffers from dementia and lives in the basement of their tiny ramshackle home. Lindy keeps herself occupied by being an avid reader and taking care of her father.
Mr. Crabtree is a haunting character, apparently based on a real-life story the author came across in her research. Having been a coal miner for most of his life, Mr. Crabtree is only comfortable in dark, tiny spaces, mostly hunched over. Keller’s writing gives the reader a startlingly clear picture of the elderly coal miner.
Which brings me to what I like best about this amazing writer – her descriptions. Without ever having seen the small, fictional West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap, I could find my way around. I know. I know. It’s fiction. Still, you know what I mean.
Not just the town, but the people who live in the town, are clearly painted in my mind.I love Keller’s development of Bell’s sister Shirley. I hope we continue to see her in future books.
Consider this description of the Crabtree home….
The interior of the house was similar to the exterior, like a dirty sock turned inside out despite the fact that both sides are equally filthy. It was ramshackle, compact, and claustrophobically cluttered. An ancient gray haze seemed to hover over the stuff, as if select portions had lain undisturbed for slow-turning centuries, like the spoons and combs and vases of Pompeii. Bell had been in a lot of houses in Raythune County that looked just like this, houses that were gradually sinking back down into the dirt they’d emerged from.
Can’t you just picture that house?
Keller’s books aren’t cheerful. I hope at some point that Bell will find some happiness. But they aren’t depressing either, simply realistic. The books are well-written and very readable, and the mysteries are well-crafted.
I can’t recommend this book enough, as well as her previous two (A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River). Great reading.
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