A Killing in the Hills
  • A Killing in the Hills
  • A Killing in the Hills

A Killing in the Hills

3.7 63
by Julia Keller

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In A Killing in the Hills, a powerful, intricate debut from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, a mother and a daughter try to do right by a town and each other before it's too late.

What's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia? Three elderly men are gunned down over their coffee at a local diner, and seemingly half the town is there to

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In A Killing in the Hills, a powerful, intricate debut from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, a mother and a daughter try to do right by a town and each other before it's too late.

What's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia? Three elderly men are gunned down over their coffee at a local diner, and seemingly half the town is there to witness the act. Still, it happened so fast, and no one seems to have gotten a good look at the shooter. Was it random? Was it connected to the spate of drug violence plaguing poor areas of the country just like Acker's Gap? Or were Dean Streeter, Shorty McClurg, and Lee Rader targeted somehow?

One of the witnesses to the brutal incident was Carla Elkins, teenaged daughter of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, WV. Carla was shocked and horrified by what she saw, but after a few days, she begins to recover enough to believe that she might be uniquely placed to help her mother do her job.

After all, what better way to repair their fragile, damaged relationship? But could Carla also end up doing more harm than good—in fact, putting her own life in danger?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At the start of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Keller's outstanding first novel, 17-year-old Carla Elkins is waiting for her divorced mother, Bell Elkins, Raythune County's prosecuting attorney, at the Salty Dawg, a chain restaurant in Acker's Gap, W.Va., when three old men are shot dead at a nearby table. Carla catches only a glimpse of the killer at the Salty Dawg's entrance before he flees. Bell, who's been crusading with the local sheriff against the growing illegal traffic in prescription drugs and the violence it spawns, investigates the triple slaying, as does rebellious Carla. Meanwhile, the drug boss orders the assassin to kill the meddling prosecutor. Keller does a superb job showing both the natural beauty of Appalachia and the hopeless anger of the people trapped there in poverty. Some characters turn out to be better than they appear, some much worse, but the ensemble cast is unforgettable. So is this novel. Agent: Lisa Gallagher, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"A Killing in the Hills superbly evokes the hard times and wooded beauty of a poverty-stricken county in West Virginia. . .A finely written and engrossing debut."

Houston Chronicle

A Killing In The Hills is a gripping, beautifully-crafted murder mystery that shows that small-town West Virginia is no longer Mayberry. Great reading.”


“Julia Keller is that rare talent who combines gripping suspense, a fabulous sense of place and nuanced characters you can't wait to come back to. A must read.”


A Killing in the Hills is a remarkably written and remarkably tense debut. I loved it.”


"Julia Keller's A Killing in the Hills is a terrific debut—atmospheric, suspenseful, assured. I hope there's more to come in the story of Bell Elkins and Acker's Gap."


"Be careful opening this book because once you do you won't be able to close it. Instead, clear the weekend, silence the phone and settle into Acker's Gap, a place as fascinating and fraught with violence and beauty as Daniel Woodrell's Ozarks or William Gay's Tennessee. A killer novel."


“Outstanding. . .Keller does a superb job showing both the natural beauty of Appalachia and the hopeless anger of the people trapped there in poverty. . .Unforgettable.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review, Pick of the Week)

"A page-turner with substance and depth, this is as suspenseful and entertaining as it is accomplished."

Booklist (starred review)

“A fictional debut for a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, born and raised in West Virginia, whose love for the state, filled with natural beauty and deep poverty, pervades a mystery that has plenty of twists and turns and a shocking conclusion.”

Kirkus (starred review)

Library Journal
The shocking opening of Keller's debut—the point-blank fatal shooting of three old men at a fast-food joint in rural West Virginia—will jerk unsuspecting readers out of their complacency. Carla, the adolescent daughter of the county's lead prosecutor, Belfa "Bell" Elkins, witnesses the shooting, but with the logic of a teenager, she doesn't tell anyone what she knows. Bell, an intensely driven loner, senses that this killing ties in with the wave of drug crimes threatening to overwhelm her county. She must also wrestle with another troubling case involving a developmentally disabled young man accused of murdering his friend. While Bell tears all over the county questioning people, Carla's lies of omission come to haunt her. VERDICT Keller's vividly described characters and shifting points of view make this debut novel especially realistic. Occasionally, a plot thread peters out (e.g., where did all the reporters go?), but the story is so engrossing that pages just fly by. Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, neatly straddles the line between moralizing and storytelling with this superbly detailed and suspense-drenched mystery. Share with Linda Fairstein, Meg Gardiner, and Lisa Gardner fans.
Kirkus Reviews
A tough prosecutor who's trying to make a difference in the lives of West Virginians suddenly finds her own life in shambles. Whatever plans Bell Elkins made for herself as a child growing up near the town of Acker's Gap ended when her older sister killed their father. From that point on, Bell was brought up in various foster homes. After intelligence and determination got her through law school, she and her husband, fellow attorney Sam Elkins, found high-paying jobs in Washington until Bell, tired of their shallow lifestyle, returned with their daughter Carla to West Virginia. When Carla, who's changed from a delightful little girl to a sulky teen, witnesses the murder of three old men at a local fast-food joint, her love-hate relationship with Bell becomes worse, especially since she recognizes the killer as someone she saw at an alcohol- and drug-laced party she can't mention to her mother. Bell and her longtime friend Sheriff Nick Fogelsong have been fighting a losing battle against the drug kingpin whose dealers are feasting on the misery of the poor and often desperate population. So it's only natural that they suspect these killings are drug-related. In addition, Bell has to decide if she wants to prosecute a mentally challenged young man accused of killing a child he often played with. Even with her own life in danger, Bell won't back down. A fictional debut for a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, born and raised in West Virginia, whose love for the state, filled with natural beauty and deep poverty, pervades a mystery that has plenty of twists and turns and a shocking conclusion.

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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Bell Elkins Novels , #1
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A Killing in the Hills

By Julia Keller

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Julia Keller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01806-9


The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cups of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.

Then sipping. Then blowing again.

Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.

Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You couldn't hide a thing in here.

She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was the marker. The line.

Because at this point, she would realize later, these three old men had less than a minute to live.

One of them must've told a joke, because now his two buddies laughed — it sounded, Carla thought, like agitated horses, it was a kind of high-pitched, snorting, snickery thing — and they all shuffled their feet appreciatively under the table. They were flaky-bald, too, and probably incontinent and impotent and incoherent and all the rest of it.

So what's left? That's what Carla was wondering. After you hit forty, fifty, sixty, what's the freakin' point anymore, anyway?

Slumped forward, skinny elbows propped on the top of her very own little plastic table, Carla used the heel of her right hand to push a crooked slab of straight dark hair up and off her forehead. Her other hand cradled her chin.

Her nose ring itched. Actually, everything itched. Including her thoughts.

This place was called the Salty Dawg. It was a regional chain that sold burgers and fries, shakes and malts, and biscuits topped with slabs of ham or chicken and a choice of gravy: red-eye or sausage. But it didn't sell hot dogs, which at least would've justified the stupid name, a charmless bit of illogic that drove Carla crazy whenever she came in here and slid into one of the crappy plastic chairs bolted to the greasy floor. If she didn't have to, she'd never be wasting her time in this joint, and she always wondered why anybody ever came in here willingly.

Then she remembered. If you were an old fart, they gave you your coffee at a discount.

So there you go. There's your reason to live. You get a dime off your damned coffee.


Carla was vaguely ashamed of the flicks of menace that roved randomly across her mind, like a street gang with its switchblades open. She knew she was being a heartless bitch — but hell, they were just thoughts, okay? It's not like she'd ever say anything rude out loud.

She was bored, though, and speculating about the old farts was recreational.

To get a better look, without being totally obvious about it, she let her head loll casually to one side, like a flower suddenly too heavy for its stalk, and narrowed and shifted her eyes, while keeping her chin centered in her palm.

Now the old men were laughing again. They opened their mouths too wide, and she could see that some of their teeth were stained a weird greenish yellow-brown that looked like the color of the lettuce she'd sometimes find way in the back of the fridge, the kind her mom bought and then forgot about. It was, Carla thought with a shudder of oddly pleasurable repugnance, the Official Color of Old Man Teeth.

She didn't know any of them. Or maybe she did. All old men looked alike, right? And old towns like the one she lived in — Acker's Gap, West Virginia, or as Carla and her friends preferred to call it, The Middle of Freakin' Nowhere — were filled with old men. With interchangeable old farts. It was just another crappy fact she had to deal with in her crappy life, on her way to what was surely an even crappier future.

Her thoughts had been leaning that way all morning long, leaning toward disgust and despair, and the constant proximity of gross old men in the Salty Dawg was one of the reasons why.

Another was that her mother was late to pick her up.


So Carla was pissed.

They had agreed on 11 A.M. It was now 11:47. And no sign of good old Mom, who also wasn't answering her cell. Carla Elkins was forced to sit here, getting free refills on her Diet Coke and playing with her french fries, pulling them out of the red cardboard ark one by one and stacking them up like tiny salty Lincoln Logs. Building a wall. A fort, maybe. A greasy little fort. She'd just had her nails done the day before over at Le Salon, and the black polish — she was picking up another french fry now, and another, and another, and another, while her other hand continued to prop up her chin — looked even blacker by contrast with the washed-out beige of each skinny french fry.

Her mother hated black nail polish, which was why Carla chose it. She wasn't crazy about it herself, but if it pissed off her mom, she'd make the sacrifice.

The Salty Dawg was right down the street from the Acker's Gap Community Resource Center — the RC, everybody called it — which was a long, square, flat-roofed dump of a place with ginormous plate-glass windows cut into three sides of the icky yellow brick. Somebody'd once told Carla that, a million years ago, the RC had been a Ford dealership.

That was Acker's Gap for you: Everything had once been something else. There was nothing new. Nothing fresh or different. Ever.

She had to endure her court-mandated Teen Anger Management Workshop at the RC on Saturday mornings, 8:00 to 10:30, during which time the counselor would go around the circle and ask each of them what she or he was feeling. What I'm feeling, Carla wanted to say, is that this is a lame-ass way to spend a Saturday morning. But she didn't. Usually, when her turn came, she just scooted a little bit forward and a little bit back on the chair's tiny wheels and stared at her black fingernails and mumbled, I'm, um, feeling kind of mixed up inside. Her friend Lonnie Prince had told her once that adults want to hear that kind of thing, so that they can nod and look all concerned and show that they remember how hard it is to be a teenager, even though it was, like, a thousand years ago.

The counselor always dismissed them right at 10:30. On the dot. He didn't want to spend one more minute with them than they wanted to spend with him. Half an hour after that, her mother was supposed to pick her up at the Salty Dawg. Her mother's office was just up the street, in the county courthouse, and she was working this Saturday, so it was a good plan.

Except that her mother was late. Again.

A shriek sliced through the room. It startled Carla, making her fingers twitch, which in turn caused her to demolish one entire wall of Fort French Fry.

Her head whipped around. A little girl and a man — surely the kid's father, Carla thought, because they looked alike, they both had broad, squashed-looking noses and stick-straight, dirty-blond hair — were sitting across from each other in a booth in the corner. The little girl was screaming and pounding the tabletop with a pair of fat pink fists, flinging her head back and forth. The dad, meanwhile, his white shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal a pair of aggressively hairy forearms, was leaning across the table, clutching a chicken biscuit with most of its yellow wrapper removed. His face was frozen in a hopeful, slightly crazed-looking smile. The girl, though — she was four, maybe five — was ignoring him and instead just kept screaming and jerking her head around. Threads of dirty-blond hair were stuck in the snot ejected by her nose in two bright tubes of ooze.

The father was panicky, confused, desperate. Gotta be a divorced dad, Carla surmised. Gotta be some asshole out to bank some kid time on the weekend. He was clearly a rookie. An amateur. He made cooing sounds, trying to do something, anything, that would stop the ferocious yowling.

Give it up, dude, Carla thought.

She knew all about part-time dads who wanted to make up for everything in a few short hours on a Saturday morning at the Salty Dawg. She could've written a handbook. Offered tips. She could've told this jerk that he'd blown it by starting to unwrap the chicken biscuit for his daughter. Never, never, never. The more wounded the little girl was, the more blindsided by the divorce, the more she'd want to do everything by herself from now on. It was survival instinct. She was in training. Getting ready for the day when Daddy Dearest didn't come around so much anymore.

Carla's attention swiveled back to the three old men. They were still laughing, still making those horrible old-man-laughing sounds that came out like a whiny scritchy-scratch. One of them was using the back of his brown-spotted hand to dab at a happy tear that was leaking out of his disgusting-looking runny eye. After the dab he reared back his head and peered at that hand, like he wondered how he'd gotten the wet spot on it.

She saw the three old men in their matching black jackets, laughing, mouths open, faces pleated.

She saw them savoring their little joke.

Then she saw them die.




One shot per head.

By the time a startled Carla let go of the french fry she was holding — she'd been rebuilding Fort French Fry from scratch — the three old men were gone.

One slumped onto the little beige tabletop, knocking over his coffee. Blood and coffee, commingled, sloshed across the beveled edge. The friend sitting to his left had been smacked out of the seat by the force of the shot and deposited on the floor, faceup, his eyes and his nose replaced by a frilly spray of pink and gray. The third old man had rocked back in his chair, arms flung out to either side. A portion of his forehead was missing.

Carla turned toward the door.

She saw — she thought she saw — the blur of an arm sweeping up with a flourish, a wild arc, dramatic, like in a movie, and at the end of the arm, a ridged chip of dark gray, an angled chunk of metal, dull gray, not shiny, and her gaze shifted and she saw — she thought she saw — a skinny face, two tiny eyes, pig eyes, Carla thought, it looks like a pig's eyes, pink and tiny, and the arm sweeping back down again.

Another frantic blur, and the glass double doors flapped back and forth and back and forth in a diminishing swish. Then the doors were still.

Now the other customers realized what had just happened.

And that's when the screaming started.


Pale yellow tape stamped with a repeating bleat of ominous black block letters — CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS — stretched across the mouth of the Salty Dawg's parking lot, bouncing and twisting in the crisp fall wind, bellying and sagging.

Bell Elkins tore through the tape as if it were tinsel on last year's Christmas tree — as if it were, that is, superfluous, out of place, and certainly nothing that ought, under the present circumstances, to be impeding her progress. She crossed the lot in five long strides, dodging emergency vehicles, hopping over crumble-edged fissures in the blacktop. Her arms were tucked tight against her sides, hands curled into fists, chin tilted up as she charged forward.

The door was blocked by Deputy Charlie Mathers. He was a wide man with slicked-back black hair, a perpetual frosting of sweat on his bright pink forehead, and a small dimple in his chin that looked like the half-moon print of a baker's thumbnail pressed randomly in a ball of dough.

"Ms. Elkins," he said, palms held straight up like stop signs, as if she might just take a mind to run him over, "this here's a crime scene and I really can't let you —"

"Hell with that, Charlie. My daughter's in there."

Bell pressed the crunchy ball of yellow tape against his massive chest and prepared to go right on by. She had run track in college, before she became pregnant with Carla, and while that was almost twenty years ago and she hadn't kept up with the punishing daily regimen, she still had strong legs and a kind of permanent forward momentum. Her body language, she'd been told too many times, gave off the constant vibe that she was pushing against things: doors, rules, limits, propriety, even the wind. Maybe I am, had become her standard reply, more to shut people up than anything else. Maybe I am. She had springy reddish brown hair divided by a left-side part, a high forehead, thin mouth, small nose. Because she'd bolted from her desk and headed over here in such a hurry, she was still wearing black-rimmed reading glasses, glasses that she would've torn off if she'd remembered them. Behind the lenses, her eyes — ferocious-looking at the moment, half-wild, aimed at the place where she knew her daughter was — were light gray.

"Ms. Elkins, you can't just go bustin' in here without proper authoriza —"

"Back off, Charlie. I mean it."

Sixteen minutes earlier, Bell had been sitting in her office in the county courthouse, lost in the thought-maze of a complicated case, when her assistant, Rhonda Lovejoy, had arrived in a frantic dither, the orangey-blond curls of her perm bouncing and shivering, as if her hair were even more frightened than she was.

"Trouble!" Rhonda had squealed. Foamy flecks of spit accumulated in the loose corners of her mouth. "Gunshots ... downtown —" She paused to pant dramatically, sticking out a chubby index finger to mark her place in her narrative. With her other hand, she clutched her considerable stomach.

Bell, frowning, had lifted her gaze from the tiny print in the massive leather-bound law book that lay open between her spread elbows on the desktop. The case — she had to decide in two days whether to indict a mentally challenged man named Albie Sheets for the murder of a six-year-old — was a daunting one, fraught with moral and legal dilemmas as tightly tangled as miscellaneous string and single shoelaces and ancient rubber bands nested in the back of a kitchen drawer. Whenever Bell sat down to tackle it, she lost all sense of time. She had instructed her assistant to meet her here at the office this morning by 9 A.M. Hearing a heavy step in the hall, Bell had rediscovered her watch and realized how late Rhonda was. Ridiculously late. At which point another thought had occurred to her: She, too, was late — late to pick up Carla at the Salty Dawg.

First things first, however. Bell had squared her shoulders, readying herself to be the fire-breathing boss, to address Rhonda in all-out, full-on, rip-her-a-new-one mode.

And then her assistant's words finally registered.

Gunshots. Downtown.

"Where?" Bell said.

Rhonda, first gulping another spoonful of air, had managed a raspy, "Salty Dawg." The syllables came out in three ragged gasps. Rhonda's rapid ascent of the courthouse steps had just about done her in.

Bell was up and out of her chair so fast that it had startled Rhonda, causing her to tilt back and wobble precariously like a sideswiped bowling pin, nearly knocking over the yellow vase on the bookshelf behind her. Bell whipped past her assistant and flew through the narrow public hall, loafers clicking against the polished wooden floor, hand diving into the pocket of her black linen trousers to fish out her car keys.

She was halfway down the courthouse steps before she was aware of Rhonda's voice behind her, plaintive, wailing her name, pleading with her to slow down.

"Carla's there," Bell said, curt, final, flinging the words back over her shoulder, not breaking her stride. Her runner's rhythm had, as always, come right back to her, like an obscure fact seemingly forgotten but then instantly available, tucked as it was under the first layer of consciousness.

"Oh my God!" Rhonda had cried. "Oh my God oh my God oh my God. Do you want me to come with you or should I —"


Excerpted from A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller. Copyright © 2012 Julia Keller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

JULIA KELLER was born and raised in West Virginia, and now lives in Chicago and Ohio. In her career as a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series she wrote for the Chicago Tribune about a small town in Illinois rocked by a deadly tornado. A Killing in the Hills is her first mystery.

JULIA KELLER spent twelve years as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune, where she won a Pulitzer Prize. A recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, she was born in West Virginia and lives in Chicago and Ohio.

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A Killing in the Hills 3.7 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 63 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book had everything.....a great plot, likeable characters, etc. It was a book that kept me interested from beginning to end. Loved it!
chafinwood More than 1 year ago
As a native of the southern coalfields of West Virginia, I was drawn to the title and I was not disappointed. I could not stop reading. The descriptions of the mountains, culture, economics and the people were on target. The coal trucks, road conditions and coal dust added to the reality of the situation. I hope to read more in this series.
Delphimo More than 1 year ago
Keller writes a beautiful novel complete with dimensional characters and riveting scenes. I could fell the gentle strength of Belfa and the tenacious hold on Link Fogelsong. Why do people turn to crime is a question with many layers, and Keller addresses several of the reasons in her novel. The people of Acker's Gap are pitiful and wonderful in different degrees. A small community knows all the personal secrets, but individuals lack the gumption for involvement. The only concern rests with the electrician that comes to review his work. I see no relevance in this character other than a love interest in a later novel. I also feel that the emotions between Bell and Carla, and between Bell and her sister are too mellow. Where are the heat and the frustration?
amia More than 1 year ago
Good mystery, lots of plot lines going on, but not so many as to be distracting.  Once I got into it, I couldn't put it down.  Hope to see more of the folks from Ackers Gap!  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent book! I couldnt put it dowm!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Please bn. Cant something be done to plot spoilers like dollycas who give away every detail of the book? Why bother buying the book why rude posters like her reveal every detail? Please ban these hateful posters.
readergirllp More than 1 year ago
I really, really loved this book. I'm glad I chose to read the first one in the series before reading the newest one. This is a great look into amodern day way of dealing with a lot of small town issues.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This would have been a much better read had there not been so much foul language. I think a good novel can be written without swearing and cursing.
lindyLW More than 1 year ago
This book was great, kept you reading and not wanting to put the book down. I REALLY enjoyed it and glad she is making a series of it. This author is going to go real far, as she writes a book that keeps your interest and keeps you in suspense
mabsie More than 1 year ago
A really good book!! a page turner in the hills of West Virginia that has everything. The characters are unique and likable - the cultural climate is riviting - the cases are not typical whodunnits - the drug traffic theme seems realistic. I hope. Julia Keller will write more mysteries.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This could have been a very good book. The writing was good, the story was good, but the author, a WV native really gave her native state a slap in the face. I'm a native West Virginian, too, and I see beauty in our state; and, healthy, intelligent people. This book depicts the state so stereotypically poor, ignorant, dirty, run down and hopeless with no redeeming qualities. That is lazy writing. I don't recommend this book.
aqua-girl More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend. A good mystery. Hard to put down!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For readers who enjoy small towns and mountains. It was interesting and I will read more by this author, if her characters continue to grow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good was not disapointed
1dachsmom 3 months ago
HIGHLY RECOMMEND!!! Non-stop suspense, right up until the end. Adding her to my favorite author list.
bayareagirl 4 months ago
Boring, over-written, full of trauma drama repetition. Really don't get all the glowing reviews ! Characters are one dimensional and in case you are confused let me tell you again how stubborn and gritty and angry Bell is. Coal trucks and trailers and Chess Rader were the best pages -- but over all not very well honed.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Impressive debut. The descriptions sometimes overshadow the action, and if you are paying attention you will figure out the identity of the drug kingpin early on, but this is a solid mystery that keeps your interest. I look forward to reading more by this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely recommend reading this book. I found it hard to put it down. Was shocked by the "bad guy". Will read more from this author.
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