Carla is pissed. She is a petulant, angst-riddled teen stuck in a stupid boring diner, in a stupid boring small town, in stupid boring West Virginia waiting for her mom, who is late, again. Out of nowhere POP, POP, POP! The three elderly men sitting at a table near her are executed, systematically shot in the head one after another. Thus begins A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller, the first novel by this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
The main character is Belfa Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for the community of Acker’s Gap, who is also Carla’s mother. Bell, as she is known by her friends, was born and raised in Acker’s Gap and is all too familiar with the difficulties and crime particular to this rural and impoverished community. After completing her law degree, she returned to her hometown to try to help with the fight against crime. Similar to its big city counterparts, drugs have taken a stronghold in the region and there has been a steady increase in violent crime and death as a result.
This is a cleverly-written tale with as many twists and turns as the snakelike West Virginia mountain roads. Keller, who was born and raised in West Virginia, accurately depicts the harsh realities of the unemployed who reside between played out coalmines and towns where more businesses are closed than open. The complicated relationship between Bell and her daughter is poignantly realistic they forge a prickly path through the turbulent teenage years. Carla can identify the shooter and takes it upon herself to try to help with his capture, and this keeps the suspense building to a surprising climax. The combination of the family storyline and the mystery of the killer’s motive and identity make this a captivating read. Hopefully this won’t be our last visit to Acker’s Gap.