|| Rating: 3.5* of five
The Book Description: In this powerful, intricate debut from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, a mother and a daughter try to do right by a town and each other before it's too late.
What's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia? Three elderly men are gunned down over their coffee at a local diner, and seemingly half the town is there to witness the act. Still, it happened so fast, and no one seems to have gotten a good look at the shooter. Was it random? Was it connected to the spate of drug violence plaguing poor areas of the country just like Acker's Gap? Or were Dean Streeter, Shorty McClurg, and Lee Rader targeted somehow?
One of the witnesses to the brutal incident was Carla Elkins, teenaged daughter of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, WV. Carla was shocked and horrified by what she saw, but after a few days, she begins to recover enough to believe that she might be uniquely placed to help her mother do her job.
After all, what better way to repair their fragile, damaged relationship? But could Carla also end up doing more harm than good—in fact, putting her own life in danger?
My Review: Very journalistic. Bell, the prosecutor heroine, has a difficult relationship with her teenaged only child. (Duh! That’s called “teenaged daughter syndrome,” and afflicts all parents for at least 4 to 5 child-rearing years.) She’s divorced. (Duh! This is called “the wages of sin,” aka marrying outside one’s species. Never a good idea. Seldom works for very long.) She’s poor. (Duh! She works for the gummint, and not only that, the gummint of one of the poorest states!)
Murder and mayhem and drug-dealing and small-town woes. Not bad, not particularly good, and if you want to read something excellent on the same themes, read Winter’s Bone. This? Well, if you want to. But borrow it, don’t buy it.
|| In "A Killing in the Hills," a powerful, intricate debut from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, a mother and a daughter try to do right by a town and each other before it's too late.
What's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia? Three elderly men are gunned down over their coffee at a local diner, and seemingly half the town is there to witness the act. Still, it happened so fast, and no one seems to have gotten a good look at the shooter. Was it random? Was it connected to the spate of drug violence plaguing poor areas of the country just like Acker's Gap? Or were Dean Streeter, Shorty McClurg, and Lee Rader targeted somehow?One of the witnesses to the brutal incident was Carla Elkins, teenaged daughter of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, WV. Carla was shocked and horrified by what she saw, but after a few days, she begins to recover enough to believe that she might be uniquely placed to help her mother do her job.
After all, what better way to repair their fragile, damaged relationship? But could Carla also end up doing more harm than good--in fact, putting her own life in danger?
A Pulitzer prize-winning journalist writes a first novel about a murder of three elderly men in the West Virginia hill country. The possibilities intrigued me from the first few pages, and I expected a well-written piece of work--no fluff, no sloppiness, clean editing, and mature, solid plot and theme structure. A good journalist is experienced in the weight of a word, the sharpness of a sentence. Unfortunately, this debut novel turned out to be derivative and prosaic, with minimal tension and a telegraphed plot. It should also be billed as a YA/crossover, due to the immoderately frisky voice, heavy-handed platitudes, and transparent story.
In a rural mountain coffee shop, the Salty Dawg, in the small town of Acker's Gap, a door opens, a man aims a gun, and three men are shot in cold blood. One of the witnesses is Carla, the sixteen-year-old troubled daughter of the Raythune county prosecutor, thirty-eight-year-old Belfa "Bell Elkins. She recognizes the killer from a party she was at once, but doesn't want to tell her mother because she is afraid she will be grounded "for life" if she admits to being at this party, which was actually some time ago.
Really? That's too much to swallow, considering the horror of seeing three people killed in front of you at such a tender age. Worried about being grounded if you help your mother catch the killer? She's already been in trouble in the past for those petty teenage crimes with pot and cigarettes. It isn't news to Bell that her daughter has experimented, and considering how intelligent Carla is made to be, how could she be this recklessly stupid? It doesn't add up, but it was a lazy contrivance for the plot and theme.
Bell and Nick Fogelsong, the sheriff, go way back to when Bell was traumatized by a violent crime that landed her sister Shirley in jail, when Shirley was sixteen and Bell just ten. Bell became a ward of the state and lived unhappily in a series of foster homes. Shirley remains in jail and refuses to see Bell. Nick is one of her closest confidants, the only one that knows most of the story (along with her ex). The facts bluntly unfold, and it feels like a rehash of older, done before stories. The earnestly quirky characters tend to feel borrowed from clichéd novels.
Belfa was ambitious, and married an equally ambitious young man, Sam; they were sweethearts since before law school. Sam is now a topflight lawyer for a lobbyist firm in D.C. They are divorced now, as Sam was a bit of an egotist and skirt chaser, but they remain in regular contact. Bell wants to be here in Acker's Gap where she grew up; she is determined to infiltrate the cabals of illegal prescription drug dealers that have invaded her county and hometown. She wants Carla to stay here, but Carla wants to live with her dad, out of guilt and a desire to escape from telling her mother the truth.
The other plot thread concerns an adult male, Albie Sheets, with the IQ of a small child that is accused of murdering his six-year-old friend, Tyler Bevins, a boy he plays with daily. Bell is the prosecuting attorney, and she has concerns about this man's ability to understand the crime, and to comprehend right from wrong. The answers to this crime were telegraphed too clumsily and visibly, and has remnants of older stories covered in numerous past novels.
The author evidently did not feel the need to have the pathologist determine the cause of death of this little boy. Either Acker's Gap or the author dropped the ball. Apparently, they look at a crime scene and decide cause of death on sight and sound? On witness testimony exclusively? This made no sense to me. It wasn't stated that the medical examiner didn't conduct an official autopsy, but he couldn't have, based on information that was revealed. The author jettisoned the law, creating an implausible narrative with unwieldy gaps.
Supposedly, Bell is an outstanding prosecuting attorney, but I only know that because the author declares but doesn't show us. I see little evidence of intrepid crime-solving and questioning of witnesses--the little I do see was stock-in-trade. Moreover, perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought a Pulitzer winner was going to write a fresh, bold story. Instead, the graceless muddling left no room for tension, while melodrama, high emotions and boiler plate banality took its place. And as we near the denouement, the pace of the story is handicapped by the hamstrung events.
Keller has potential, I see it, and I keep rooting for it to unearth itself. She periodically dazzles the reader with gemlike prose, which supports the theme--where violence and beauty live in a fraught and fragile frisson, but it gets buried by a workmanlike narrative and plot.
"She loved these mountains, loved their raw beauty, but it was a wary, cautious 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 your back on it. You had to respect the fact of its wildness. It was a wildness that would outlast your love."
Nice, but not enough.
I suspect that the author left the door open for future installments. Let's hope she saves the day in her sophomore effort.
I received this book from Net Galley in e-format in exchange for an honest review.
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