Book Review: The Cold Way Home by Julia Keller

The Cold Way Home

Julia Keller

Bell Elkins Novels #8

August 20, 2019

In The Cold Way Home by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Julia Keller, readers return to West Virginia and sleuth Bell Elkins who investigates Wellwood, a state-run psychiatric hospital for the poor that burned to the ground decades ago.

Bell Elkins, Nick Fogelsong and Jake Oakes take on a case of a missing teenager. A tip from a source leads Bell into the woods where she stumbles over a dead body. Assuming it is Dixie Sue Folsom, she calls it in. But when the body is turned over it is not Dixie Sue but Darla Gilley, a woman approaching her sixties.

This was not the body of a young woman. The face was deeply lined. The chin had receded some years ago into a pale white pudding of excess flesh. A pair of thick-lensed glasses had smashed against the eyes. The victim, when struck in the back of the head, had clearly toppled straight forward onto the hard ground.

Since she was of the same generation as Nick, he knows her and her older brother, Joe, who is dying of cancer. Darla, who has recently divorced her husband, is living in the attic. A search of that space reveals nothing.

Bell wrestles with the question: who would have wanted to kill Darla Gilley? And why was her body found near the ruins of Wellwood, a psychiatric hospital?  It has been closed up for decades and still has a sinister reputation.

Wellwood, . . . was just one of dozens of state-run mental hospitals that used patients as guinea pigs in the middle of the last century.

Darla’s brother suggests a possible connection.

“In 1959,” Joe said, interrupting him with a passion that by all rights should have been beyond his meager, dwindling strength, “Bessie was murdered on the hospital grounds. They never found her killer.”

Bessie was Darla’s grandmother and both women were struck in the back of the head with a sharp object.

Now Bell and her colleagues have two murders to solve.

Bell returns to the Gilley home and the attic and conducts another fruitless search. But a few days later Darla lends a hand from beyond the grave. She has found Bessie’s diary and mailed to Nick Fogelsong just before she was murdered.

But when Bell reads it she is disappointed:

“The thing is,” [she tells Nick], “I just naturally assumed that the diary had to be related to Darla’s murder. But maybe it’s not. Maybe the two things – her finding and mailing you the diary and her death at the Wellwood – just happened to occur in the same general time frame.”

“Hell of a coincidence,” he muttered. “Sort of like two murders happening sixty years apart, in the same general area, to a grandmother and a granddaughter.”

 Bell realizes the deaths have everything to do with Wellwood.

She stood in the imaginary shadow of what had once been towering stone walls. . . Discovering what had been done in this place – in the name of science, in the name of healing – had drawn Bell back here today.

The mystery is first-rate with a murderer I never saw coming. The characters are fully developed people who are going through their own private crises—very realistic—at the same time as the murder investigation.

But my favorite part is the West Virginia setting and the battles of the inhabitants just to live. Generation after generation, the people who are born and live in Acker’s Gap struggle to survive. Keller covers everything from layoffs in the fifties to the current opioid epidemic and the effects on everyone in the town. Why do the people stay?

They [Bell and Nick] both loved this town. They both believed that any death diminished it.


Need more Bell Elkins?

See our review of Bone on Bone by Julia Keller

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