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Book review: Compelling mysteries set in small-town W.Va.

By James E. Casto

"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.

"Aker's Gap is fictional, but is based on some of the small towns in southern West Virginia through which I traveled as a child," Keller told me in her reply when I emailed her about her new mysteries. She explained that before he started teaching at Marshall, her father often worked for her grandfather, Edward T. Edmonds, who owned a wholesale frozen food company. "My father would make deliveries in places such as Williamson and Welch. I'd go with him as often as I could.

"I've always wanted to write about West Virginia," Keller said. "It is a place so rich in physical beauty, yet beset by many challenges. There are stories everywhere, stories around every bend in the road, stories running like the swift mountain streams."

"A Killing in the Hills" received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist. And it won the 2012 Barry Award for best first mystery novel. That kind of debut pretty much guaranteed that more books featuring Bell Elkins would follow.

Newly published "Bitter River," the second in the series, opens with a phone call long before sunrise.

"Phone calls before dawn are never good news," writes Keller. "And when you're the county's prosecuting attorney, calls from the sheriff are rarely good news, either." So when Bell picks up the phone, she's already sure she's not going to like what she hears, but she's unprepared to learn that the body of a 16-year-old girl has been found in the Bitter River -- and it's clear she was already dead, strangled, before she hit the water.

With a case like that, Bell knows the coming weeks are going to be tough. But that's not all Bell is coping with these days. Her daughter is now living with Bell's ex-husband, hours away. Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, perhaps Bell's closest friend in Acker's Gap, is behaving oddly. Furthermore, a face from her past has resurfaced for reasons Bell can't quite figure. Bell must search for the truth -- not only behind the dead girl's murder but also behind her own complicated relationships.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would read like something out of a straight-to-video movie. But Connelly and Box are right on target when they use words such as "gripping" and "evocative" to describe Keller's powerful prose.

Reading "Bitter River," it's clear that Bell Elkins has a love-hate relationship with Acker's Gap, which at one point she describes as a "shabby afterthought" of a town. And it's clear too that Keller has much the same relationship with her native state, a "complicated place" she clearly both loves and pities.

A third book in Keller's series is scheduled for publication in August of next year and, yes, a fourth book is in the works.

Retired Huntington newspaper editor James E. Casto frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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