A Killing in the Hills, by Julia Keller
A Killing in the Hills is the first novel for adults from Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Julia Keller. A West Virginian by birth, Keller turns her journalistic eye on her native state, telling a tale of social decay, and one tenacious prosecutor’s attempts to turn back its tide.
That prosecutor is Belfa “Bell” Elkins, also a West Virginian, but with a bleak past and a troubled future. Her daughter Carla, herself struggling with anger management, is witness to a triple murder in the local burger chain, plunging Bell into an investigation into the blackly opportunistic world of the illegal prescription drug trade.
Elkins is cut from familiar crime fiction cloth. Stubborn, resolutely independent and idealistic, she may not be blazing any new trails, but fortunately Keller introduces originality through the non-typical setting, and through the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship at the heart of the book. While Bell does have more traditional relationship issues, the bulk of domestic conflict comes from her arguments with Carla. Like many parents, Bell is ill equipped to balance care and compassion with cool; combined with Carla’s apparently boundless frustration, it makes for a believably bitter atmosphere in the Elkins family home.
While the characters are strong, the real draw of A Killing in the Hills comes from its handling of West Virginian society. We’ve grown used to tales of urban decay, the inevitable criminality that comes with over-population; A Killing in the Hills offers us something different. A society needn’t be urban to be post-industrial. West Virginia’s two main exports, to quote a bleak maxim, are coal and young people. The jobs are long gone, and they have taken the hope with them. The mountain towns that remain seem locked in a death spiral. Most residents have their basic decency, and not much else. All of them seem bound to suffering in some way. It’s a suffering that needs anaesthetizing, and criminal elements are only too willing to meet the demand.
Indeed, A Killing in the Hills has more than its fair share of villains, covering a range of criminal archetypes. There is the psychopath, the opportunist, the degenerate, and a brief but intriguing involvement by one of real life’s most frequent criminals, the easily led fool just happy for a moment in the limelight. Despite it’s frequent folksiness, this is a book that isn’t afraid to dip a toe in the waters of the criminal mind.
Overall, A Killing in the Hills offers archetypal but well-formed characters, written with real social consciousness, against a fascinating backdrop. West Virginia is the real star here, with the author’s love managing to shine through despite the grim subject matter.