"Bitter River." By Julia Keller. Minotaur Books. 386 pages. $25.99.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When a novel comes with dust-jacket endorsements by such heavy hitters as Michael Connelly and C.J. Box, you know you're in for something special. And that's certainly the case with "Bitter River," the second book in a compelling new series of mysteries by West Virginia native Julia Keller.
Connelly, who's written more than two dozen best-selling mysteries, says Keller's book "has an elegiac force to it that is powerful and gripping." Box, whose name is also a familiar one on the best-sellers list, calls the book "lyrical and evocative."
That's high praise -- but well merited.
Keller, who won a Pulitzer Prize during a 12-year stint as a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, was born and raised in Huntington, where her father was a professor in the Marshall University math department. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at Marshall and a doctorate in English literature at Ohio State University.
She began her distinguished journalism career as a reporting intern for nationally syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. She was a reporter and later editorial page editor at the Ashland (Ky.) Daily Independent. In 1998, she joined the Chicago Tribune, where her three-part series on the deadly 2004 Utica, Ill., tornado outbreak won her that year's Pulitzer for feature writing.
In 2008, Viking Press published her "Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It," a nonfiction study detailing the cultural impact of the first machine gun, the Gatling gun.
The following year, she published "Back Home," a novel for young readers (ages 10 and up) telling the story of a Midwestern family altered beyond measure by the Iraq War.
And then last year came "A Killing in the Hills," which introduced readers to Belfa "Bell" Elkins, a big-city lawyer who -- somewhat to her own surprise -- comes home to Acker's Gap, her dying hometown in rural West Virginia. There she takes a job as a prosecuting attorney and quickly finds herself face to face with the illegal drug trade that holds much of Southern West Virginia in its deadly grip.