Book review: A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

A Killing in the Hills
by Julia Keller
Headline, 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed this superb debut novel. Here is an author who not only can write, but clearly loves writing. A Killing in the Hills is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

What’s so good about this book is not the mechanics of the main crime plot (which do not work, in my opinion), but the characterisation, storytelling and atmosphere. The narrative is a layered one, and revelations about the layers occur at different points in the book, providing far more reader interest and engagement than is usual in a typical crime novel.

Belfa (Bell) Elkins is a prosecuting attorney in the impoverished West Virginia hamlet of Acker’s Gap. She was a trailer kid, but when she was about 10 her home burnt down – more is revealed gradually. As the book opens, a man walks into a diner, shoots three elderly men, and walks out. The aftermath of the shooting forms another narrative framework. One of the witnesses to the killing is Bell’s daughter Carla, who has just been to her teen anger-management course – and boy, does she need it! Another theme of the book is Bell’s relationship with Carla and with Sam, her ex-husband: all portrayed realistically and compellingly with an originality rarely encountered in contemporary crime fiction (which regularly features stroppy teenagers). Another theme is a case involving the death of a small boy in a game gone wrong: Bell has to decide on the charge to be made against the person responsible.

Bell is the heart of the book; her past, her professional life, her relationships with colleagues and an elderly couple she’s befriended, and her close, movingly portrayed friendship with the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong. All the characters, important or minor, are vividly conveyed, though the diner gunman is the least successful.

The intertwined plots play out against a beautiful portrayal of this rural area, a wonderful portrait of a community riven by poverty and hopelessness. The main story, that of the gunman and his actions subsequent to the initial shooting, is not credible in various ways – and the final revelations also lack believability. But this does not derail this excellent novel: there is so much to like about it that I can only urge you to read it for yourself, and discover this very talented author.

Although the cover of the book shows a beautiful picture of some mountains, here is an extract from the book:

This was what morning in West Virginia really meant, Chill thought. Not the pictures they were always sticking on postcards – sunrise over the mountains, the scooped-out gorges, and all the wildflowers – but a traffic jam in a 7-Eleven parking lot, the dirty pickups and the cars with mufflers hoisted up and tied there with rope. Kids crammed in the backseats, looking out the side windows, and if you looked back at them, they gave you the finger. Don’t see that on any postcard. Hell, no.

I received this book from Amazon Vine.

Aunt Agatha’s: another (glowing) review of this book.

YouTube: trailer for the book (very beautiful).

About the book at the publishers’ websites: Australia, USA (pdf) and UK.

12 thoughts on “Book review: A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

  1. Maxine – Thanks for this recommendation and for the excellent review. I’m already intrigued by the setting and the characters just from your description. There are indeed some novels where even if the crime plot per se doesn’t absorb one, the rest of the novel is so well done that it doesn’t matter. I’m going to have to check this one out.

    • Thanks, Margot. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Parts of it are reminiscent of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrall, but it’s very much a distinctive book. The author is a prize-winning journalist, apparently, who has written about the region in that context.

  2. Good to hear your positive comments, Maxine. I have heard this one is good and a copy arrived on the weekend. I look forward to reading it now.

  3. No wonder the newspapers are full of crappy journalism these days…all the good journalists have fled to the world of fiction writing.

    You’ve made a compelling case for this one so I have added it to my wishlist for when the actual TBR pile drops to more manageable levels. American books are more likely to be available on audio so I’ll keep an eye out for it in that format.

  4. Thanks for this review Maxine, this one will definitely go on my wish list.The passage you quote is such an accurate portrayal of the situation in those wonderful mountain areas. It seems so different from England because the poorest people live in the most beautiful areas.

    • The portrait of the community is a very strong part of this book, Norman, so I do think you’d appreciate this one.

  5. I do fancy reading this after your review Maxine. Nice to discover a new writer and the location sounds wonderful.

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