My favorite mysteries have a strong sense of place, where the setting is as much of a character as the detective or police chief or in this case, the prosecuting attorney at the center of the story. In A Killing in the Hills, the place is Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, a small town hard hit by addiction and the illegal prescription drug trade where Bell Elkins, a local girl made good, but with a traumatic past, has returned to take on the community’s ills as a prosecutor. She has a teenaged daughter, Carla, and a successful ex-husband back in D.C. as well as a friend and mentor in Sheriff Nick Fogelsong.
This debut mystery, of a series I’ve been meaning to read for a while, begins with a shocking murder of three old men in a diner; they are gunned down while sipping their morning coffee. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses to this crime is Bell’s teenage daughter, Carla, who has been particularly rebellious and snarky of late, and who reacts to the trauma by alternately reaching out to her mom and pushing her away. In the meantime, Bell tries to figure out who would want to kill three elderly men, who have been friends for year—a search that takes her up into the hills and back to her own past.
There’s a lot to like here—both in the character of Bell and her daughter—but also in the slow reveal of Bell’s past. Keller is setting up a lot for future mysteries but that doesn’t interfere with the forward momentum of this story. Though Acker’s Gap is miles away from Harlan County, there are a lot of echoes of Justified here for me in its depiction of rural poverty and the ways people try to escape it. Finally, Julia Keller writes and reviews books for the Chicago Tribune so it’s nice to support a Chicago author whose future books in the series only get better, according to my reader friends.