Review: A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

Title: A Killing in the Hills

Author: Julia Keller

Published: Minotaur Books August 2012

Synopsis: What’s happening in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia? Three elderly men are gunned down over their coffee at a local diner, and seemingly half the town is there to witness the act. Still, it happened so fast, and no one seems to have gotten a good look at the shooter.  Was it random? Was it connected to the spate of drug violence plaguing poor areas of the country just like Acker’s Gap? Or were Dean Streeter, Shorty McClurg, and Lee Rader targeted somehow?One of the witnesses to the brutal incident was Carla Elkins, teenaged daughter of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, WV. Carla was shocked and horrified by what she saw, but after a few days, she begins to recover enough to believe that she might be uniquely placed to help her mother do her job. After all, what better way to repair their fragile, damaged relationship? But could Carla also end up doing more harm than good—in fact, putting her own life in danger?

Status: Read from August 07 to 08, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Minotaur/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I love a good mystery and was intrigued both by the premise of this novel and the pedigree of it’s author, Julia Keller who is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist.
A Killing in the Hills begins in small town West Virginia where three elderly men have been shot dead in a busy local diner. As the residents of Acker’s Gap speculate on the reasons for the seemingly random crime, Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, and prosecuting attorney, Belfa Elkins, begin to suspect the murders are somehow connected to Raythune County’s growing illegal trade in prescription drugs. A strong advocate for driving the crime ring out of the county, what Bell doesn’t know is that she is next on the killer’s hit list and only her rebellious teenage daughter, Carla, can tell her who he is.

While the feature storyline of A Killing in the Hills is solid enough, I thought the plot lacked subtlety and tension overall. Many of the plot twists were bluntly foreshadowed or too contrived and apart from a single incident (which she doesn’t tell anyone about) Bell is never in any danger from the killer who is supposed to be targeting her.  Similarly, Carla’s decision to ‘investigate’ on her own seems a naive and foolish choice for the daughter of two lawyers and I didn’t believe in her motivation when much simpler options to disclose what she knew, without revealing how she knew it, were available.
While investigations continue into the murders, Bell is ruminating on another case involving the death of a young boy. I found this an interesting sub plot though again the twist was telegraphed and it’s resolution relied on a barely believable contrivance.

I liked the characters of A Killing in the Hills though none aside from the main protagonists really stand out. Bell appears to be a dedicated lawyer who works hard, perhaps too hard, believes in being fair and compassionate and though she seems to have few friends, she is intensely loyal to Ruth, and the Sheriff, who is a father figure to her. Bell has plenty of baggage to give depth to her character  including a jailed sister, an ex husband and rebellious daughter. I was less enamoured with Carla who is a brat for seventeen, mired in adolescent narcissism and anger. Though her behaviour in the novel is not completely atypical for a teenage girl, I did think it was somewhat extreme for a girl of her circumstances. A handful of townsfolk are introduced, primarily Bell’s colleagues but also community figures such as the high school principal.
I did feel some of the characters of the novel did not always behave consistently though. The killer ultimately chooses a situation I felt was out of character and I found it difficult to reconcile some of the actions of the drug ring mastermind with his character when his identity was revealed,

A real strength of A Killing in the Hills for me was the setting. Raythune County and Acker’s Gap is an area nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virgina. Keller paints the portrait of a county steeped in poverty, unemployment, and despair surrounded by a stunning, but dangerous, rural mountain landscape. I can imagine the treacherous road winding its way past dilapidated homes, rusting trailers and abandoned buildings. While Keller exposes the brutal weakness of West Virgina there is also evident love for the region in her tone.

Despite my criticisms of A Killing in the Hills, there was enough to keep me interested and I found it a fast read. I do think there is the potential to spin this into a solid mystery series and I’d be willing to give the next a try.

Available to Purchase

@Amazon I @BookDepository

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting
    Aug 10, 2012 @ 12:11:53

    I’m a sucker for the same types of settings that you are, Shelleyrae! I often wonder, though, if I were American, and these settings were familiar to me, would I find these books so appealing? Or is in part the idea of getting to dive into a new setting that is the appeal?



    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Aug 10, 2012 @ 18:30:50

      I think because the setting is exotic to us it does have an appeal that a description of say Dubbo, wouldn’t.



  2. Margaret Lynette Sharp
    Aug 10, 2012 @ 13:09:55

    I’m not into this genre, but I found your review to be well balanced and informative, as usual.



  3. Michelle
    Aug 10, 2012 @ 17:14:11

    Well written review Shelleyrae, sounds like an interesting book.



  4. Sarah
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 18:27:25

    This does sound like an interesting book Shelleyrae. I’m going to add it to my mountainous wish list and see if I get hold of a copy.



  5. Trackback: Gosh darn rubber bands and shoelaces – “A Killing in the Hills” by Julia Keller | Reading Through the BS

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