Review: Sorrow Road by Julia Keller

Sorrow Road by Julia Keller is the 5th book in the Bell Elkins series (Available today!).

James Iacobelli designed the cover for Julia Keller’s latest Bell Elkins mystery, and it’s striking. Black and white and shades of gray, with a shocking touch of red; it is a cover that draws the eye, which is what a cover is supposed to do.

But, covers are also the public “faces” of books, the picture that is worth a thousand words. Here, Iacobelli’s work immediately provokes questions: Where are we? Who is this woman? What is she doing out in the snow? While the default assumption to a fourth question—When is this story taking place?—is always present day, you can’t necessarily tell that from the image. The woman’s coat is a silhouette that hasn’t much changed in seventy-two years. There are other figures in the background but they offer us no clue.

Iacobelli combined two photos for the cover—one of a snowy winter road and one of a woman walking down a road with an umbrella—creating one seamless visual that echoes what the author has done in her narrative: weave two seemingly disparate stories into a tale that resonates through seven decades and multiple lives.

Sorrow Road is the fifth of the Bell Elkins novels set in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, an impoverished part of the country where home and family are as much the bedrock of a community as the coal that lies beneath the mountains that loom over the town. But, just as generations of mining have hollowed out the mountains, leaving them empty shells filled with ghostly dreams, so too have generations of hardship and neglect and abuse fractured the families of Acker’s Gap, leaving wounds to fester and smolder like a burning seam of coal that can never be quenched. 

Right from the opening pages, Keller shows us the infection boiling beneath the skin of the little town her protagonist calls home, the secrets kept that cannot be forgotten and yet remain unspoken even as they leave scars.

God, she thought, seconds before accosting him. I can’t stand it that he just—he just sits there. Smiling.

And so she had bolted forward, launching herself across the little round table, knocking off the game-ready checkerboard somebody had left there. The red and black plastic coins bounced soundlessly across the carpet. The old man did not flinch. He let her snatch his collar and tug him toward her, until their faces were so close that she could smell his sour, yeasty, old-man smell.

“Say it,” she said. Her voice was breathy and wet, as ragged and sopping and lost as something left out in the rain overnight. It had a rasp to it as well, a rasp of desperation. “Say you’re sorry. Say it. Say it, you bastard.”

He blinked at her. If he felt any discomfort from the force of her grip, or any recognition of who she was, he did not show it. He had no fear of her. No fear of anything. He’d forgotten fear, just as he’d forgotten everything else.

It was infuriating, but there it was.

For Janie Ferris, coming to visit her father Bill in Thornapple Terrace is not an act of daughterly devotion, but the emotional equivalent of poking a bruise to see if it still hurts. Now that his mind is gone, she can’t even get a denial out of him, much less an apology for the abuse he heaped on her and her brother. And so she is left to drift in the swirling eddies of her pain, stuck with the memories of what happened so long ago, knowing that no matter what she says or does, her father’s ability to make amends—even if only by acknowledging what he did—is forever beyond him.

She wanted a return hit, she wanted the chance to volley, but she got nothing. She wanted him to say what he had done to his children.

She wondered if Nelson, wherever he was, wanted it as much as she did. Or if he’d given up by now and never even thought about Bill Ferris. Janie had not spoken to her brother in twenty-five years. He never said why he was going away. She thought she understood why, without him telling her. He was a good boy. A caring boy. Sensitive, but also tough. He could endure his own wounds, as deep and indelible as they were; what he could not endure was having to look at her wounds, knowing that she suffered as much as he did. And so he had left West Virginia right after high school. She might not even recognize him anymore.

Well, if he rolled up his sleeves, she would. They could compare scars. 

The violence that Janie suffered was personal, but everyone who lives in her part of the world knows that it’s stitched into the fabric of the community. And, when Bell’s “frenemy” Darlene Stayer turns up asking for a favor, Bell is struck afresh by the close proximity of violence to even the most harmless of lives.

Violence was always lurking just below the surface in a place like this. It made up its mind, moment by moment, whether to rise up with a bellow and a roar, or to lie in wait, biding its time, eager for an opportunity to do the most possible harm.

Darlene’s father, like Janie’s, is addled by Alzheimer’s, and what Darlene wants to know is if his death was from natural causes or something more sinister. As Bell begins investigating, the story she uncovers goes back a generation—to 1944, connecting the two men to a secret that affected them all their long lives. Until they could no longer remember it. But, by then, the damage was done and the havoc that secret wreaked left people as hollow as the hills.

This is a story of two different times in history and of several lives lived in one place, with a secret that might have died with them without the intervention of one person. A woman alone at the center of an emotional snowstorm, just as the cover implies.

Read it as a standalone or as the entrée into a series. Either way, you will not be disappointed.

Read an excerpt from Sorrow Road here!


To learn more or order a copy, visit:

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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun HoneyA Twist of NoirLuna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird NoirPulp Ink 2Alt-DeadAlt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.

Read all posts by Katherine Tomlinson for Criminal Element.


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    Worse still, they could not find an ambulance to shift their father to a relative’s home. Their cars had been damaged when the basement parking had flooded a week earlier due to heavy rains.

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