Thursday, October 10, 2013


Julia Keller's A Killing in the Hills is a strong book, strong in the telling and strong in its details.

Someone walks into a local Aker's Gap, West Virginia, fast food chain and murders three old men. The hooded man shoots each of them once in the head, killing them all in cold blood.

Carla Elkins, the teenaged daughter of Aker's Gap, District Attorney Bell Elkins, witnesses the murder. She recognizes the man, but doesn't tell authorities, even her mother.

At the same time, Bell deals with another murder supposedly committed by a mentally handicapped boy. Bell struggles with whether she believes him to be competent to stand trial.

Bell also struggles with whether she should testify at her sister's parole hearing. Her sister murdered their abusive father and burned down their house. Bell wants to help, but her sister doesn't want her to.

Bell's strong friendship with Sheriff Nick Fogelsong started as Fogelsong comforted the child Bell outside her burning trailer home.

And in the midst of all of this, Bell's daughter is rebelling, hiding things, refusing to talk much with her mother.

Carla clearly loves Bell, but she also wants to get away.

If you haven't figured out yet, there is a lot of story here. My little summary just scratches the surface.

Bell depends on friends, a couple struggling with the wife's cancer. She remembers her own history and worries she will never be able to put it behind her.

The original killer is icily cold blooded. He ends up threatening everything Bell loves.

Though we know who the killer is early on, we don't know who hired him. Only if Bell and Nick can find the source of the drugs, can they stop the epidemic of prescription-type drug abuse in the county.

The breathtaking beauty of the hills plays off against the crushing poverty of most of the people.

This is a story you'd recommend to someone wanting to learn to write compelling mystery stories. Every chapter ratchets up the conflict. Most chapters end with a hook, something to make you want to keep reading. The character interactions are such that many people can relate to them. And the ending is exciting.

The almost-classic way Keller wrote the story distracted me sometimes. I got more interested in watching the author's mind work than I did in the story itself. But even for me, the story became riveting at the end.

So if your reading includes well-told but violent stories, you might want to try A Killing in the Hills.


“Carla was at a crossroads.

“Bell knew it, just as surely as she knew the sun would rise over the mountains in the morning, painting Acker's Gap in colors of peach and gold and pink.”


Personal information was a tool. And that tool could be shaped into a weapon.


...not all love stories have happy endings.


Naomi Johnson said...

This one's been on my list for a while. Looks like I need to move it up.

Joe Barone said...

I thought this was a good book, Naomi.