Fresh Meat: Bitter River by Julia Keller

Bitter River by Julia Kenner
Bitter River by Julia Kenner
Bitter River by Julia Keller is the second procedural featuring West Virginia's Prosecutor Bell Elkins, in which she'll investigate a teen girl's death (available September 3, 2013).

Some people possess an uncanny ability to read people. They interpret someone's body language, tone of voice or mannerisms in a blink. People like Bell Elkins can read you like a book between swallows of coffee; especially if it's good and strong:

Bell watched the way Trudy responded to the boss. She lifted her eyes from her cell. A frown of annoyance spoiled her red- rimmed mouth. She seemed to be considering whether or not she had to do what he said— and if she did, whether or not she had to do it right away, or if she could wait for a more convenient moment. Her eyes met Alton Doggett’s for a single, revelatory second.

It was Alton, not Trudy Baird, who looked away first.

They’re sleeping together, Bell realized. Interesting.

Julia Keller proves once again through Bitter River why her writing skills earned her a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2005.

Set in the small mountain town of Acker's Gap, West Virginia, Sheriff Nick Fogelsong and Prosecutor Belfa (Bell) Elkins try their best to keep peace in a town that's approaching economic ruin. It's a place where average citizens, desperate and desolate, turn to narcotics for escape and sell drugs to make ends meet.

Keller hails from West Virginia and is familiar with the trials of mountain communities. She reiterates small town idiosyncrasies through her characters' eyes. Everyone knows each other's business.

In a small town, everybody is next of kin to everybody else.

She was a plump, personable young woman whose family was related to four-fifths of the population of Raythune County, a fact that gave her a measurable edge when it came to seeking information the old-fashioned way— in other words, being expertly attuned to local gossip, which, according to Rhonda’s informal algorithm, ended up being accurate at least 99.7 percent of the time.

Bell and the sheriff knew, everything was connected around here, including—no, especially—the past and the present.

Time doesn't heal all wounds in Acker's Gap.

Time moved slower, but people aged faster. This place, her daughter, Carla, had once said, shivering with disdain, is where time goes to die. Old cars. Old brick. Old people. Acker’s Gap was an old town.

Bell shoots a disappointed glance at her ex-husband that says it all.

The past? The present? All the same thing, Sam. All the same damned thing.

So when tragedy strikes in the form of a pregnant teenager's death, everyone is suspect. Old-fashioned detective work is a slow process. Bell has little time or patience for drudgery. Nick and the Sheriff's department will do the legwork.

As good a character as Bell Elkins proved to be, I enjoyed the balance of chapters narrated by Sheriff Fogelsong. Keller voices her Sheriff as gruff and tough on the outside, but tender and compassionate when need be.

Instantly, he knew what it was. A body. And he wished like hell that he had access to something more profound in his inventory of verbal responses. A poem, maybe. Or a line from a hymn. Something dignified. Something commensurate with the enormity of what he’d now be forced to reckon with.

As it was, he said the first word that came to mind.

“Shit.”

Dealing with his schizophrenic wife.

He’d had a long day. Playing hide-and-seek with his crazy wife wasn’t at the top of his to-do list to night. Or any night.

The moment the phrase “crazy wife” dropped into his thoughts, Nick Fogelsong felt a heavy cringing shame. It almost knocked him down with its strenuous force. He knew it wasn’t her fault. This wasn’t Mary Sue’s doing. “Sweetheart.” He lifted her up and he put his big arms around her and he held her that way, a way that would’ve been uncomfortably tight for most people but that would, he knew, help settle her down.

She smelled like sweat and like something else, too, something old and matted and closed up. Rusty. He put his face against her neck. He didn’t care how she smelled. He loved her. He always would. And what Nick Fogelsong loved, he protected.

Don't get too comfortable. As soon as our heroes start to make headway, this masterful storyteller knows exactly when to inject a plot twist.

…the explosion that suddenly ripped through the old brick building .. a shattering seismic blast that pushed up a massive geyser of bricks and drywall and plaster and dirt and metal and dust, flinging it skyward, an immense and grisly fountain of wood and water and blood and smoke and bones. The earth was sucked up into a hard pocket of intensely pressurized air and then released again, dropping like an avalanche, like a bursting dam, and the force slammed Bell to the ground…

Bell and Nick, Prosecutor and Sheriff work well together. I hope Julia Keller visits Acker's Gap again real soon.

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Cindy Kerschner is an avid mystery fan, freelance writer, and professional cook. You can learn more through her website at http://www.cindysrecipesandwritings.com.

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