A Killing in the Hills
A Killing in the Hills isn't generally the type of novel that appeals to me: crime story, stereotypical characters (damaged hero cop, overworked waitress with a heart of gold, gutsy broad, sulky teenager, you get the drift) so I would probably have not read it EXCEPT it was written by Julia Keller. That is the only reason why I picked it up. And kept my fingers crossed that I would like it.
First: Julia Keller. You may or may not recognize the name: beginning in 1998 and up until just this past June, she wrote as the cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune. If you were a fan of hers, you know that she wrote beautifully and insightfully about cultural phenomena, often focusing on literature. She was a true fan of great writing and I knew that I could usually count on her literary recommendations to guide me in my reading choices. Aside from her cultural criticism column, Ms. Keller earned the Tribune a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing (the Trib's one and only in that category) in 2005 for her series on tornado-ravaged Utica, Illinois (which I actually remember reading and being completely struck by the clarity and incredible detail).
Anyway, having been a longtime Julia Keller fan, when I read that she had written her first work of fiction for adults (she authored two previous works: a work of fiction for young adults and a non-fiction work: Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel), I was very curious about what type of story A Killing in the Hills would be. To be honest, as I said at the top, I was worried when I discovered it to be a mystery. Oh boy, another mystery.
In continuing my slide down the hill of expectations, I read in an interview with Ms. Keller that this novel was the first in a planned series centering on a (you guessed it, gutsy) heroine. AND her ongoing battles (against the forces of evil). AND in a small town. Oh, did I mention the heroine is a single mom of a sulky teenage daughter?
Oh no; this was all very bad news.
Nevertheless, old fans die hard (think people who still care about Ozzie Ozbourne as another inexplicable example) so I bought the book, read it over the course of a couple days (it's a mystery, not rocket science) and....
I liked it, with some reservations.
Yes, all the stereotypes are there: Bell Elkins, hot shot DC attorney, goes back to her roots in West Virginia, divorcing her husband and dragging her unwilling and unhappy teenage daughter Carla along with her. Bell runs for and is elected to the position of prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, West Virginia and joins forces with the embattled sheriff to take down the drug dealers and suppliers who are slowly but surely ravaging the youth population of isolated towns buried in the hills.
Keller's fine writing and fleshing out of the major players in the story (Bell, Sheriff Fogelsburg, Carla) lifted the quality of A Killing in the Hills a bit from the usual genre. But the bad guys remained uninteresting and frankly bordered on caricature (snivelly teen drug dealers, etc.)
Bell is a complicated woman and the story of her childhood in that small town, as revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story, is written quite grippingly. Bell's relationship with her daughter is more than strained, and since Carla is intimately involved with the story's major crime, their issues are front and center.
Very off-putting (and oddly introduced about twenty pages before the book ends) was an extremely brief encounter that Bell has with a repairman kindly making a late-night visit to her house to check on some electrical problem. Keller goes to some length to describe the immediate attraction between them that Bell does not have time to explore because she is FIGHTING CRIME AND HER DAUGHTER IS IN DANGER, for heaven's sake. However, thoughts of him linger in Bell's mind as she's racing to save Carla's life. I was really disappointed that Keller felt the need to bring the idea of a possible romance into the picture. She has taken great pains to make Bell a strong, independent, fierce woman with a mission. Her plate is full; do we really need this element awkwardly introduced so we will buy the next book? There are other enticing threads left dangling that Keller hopes readers will follow as well into the next book, I'm sure.
While being glad that I read it, to both satisfy my curiosity and support Keller's foray as an adult fiction writer, I will not read the next book with Bell Elkins as the heroine.
I do however, wish Julia Keller a happy and satisfying life with her writing and in her new teaching position at Ohio University. I will continue to secretly hope that she may decide to venture out from the mystery genre and I will be at the front of the line once again.
Best Wishes, Julia!