The murder of 16-year-old Lucinda Trimble, whose strangled body is found in a car in the Bitter River, propels Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Keller’s worthy sequel to her well-received adult fiction debut, A Killing in the Hills (2012). As West Virginia prosecutor Bell Elkins and the rest of closely knit Acker’s Gap struggle to fathom who could have wanted to kill the popular high school honor student, a sniper fires at the county courthouse, almost killing Bell’s assistant. Days later, a devastating explosion levels Ike’s diner, moments after the divorced attorney finished breakfast with her much younger lover, Clay Meckling. Suddenly, remote Acker’s Gap seems under siege, with Bell, stalwart sheriff Nick Fogelsong, and their team scrambling to find answers before the next attack. Ultimately, some of them prove less interesting than the questions Keller, a native West Virginian, poses about the nature of friendship and family—as well as the engaging, unsentimentalized Appalachian community she has created. Agent: Lisa Gallagher, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Julia Keller is a beautiful writer and Bitter River has an elegiac force to it that is powerful and gripping. Bell Elkins is one of the most fully realized characters in fiction today. I just turned the last page on this one and I want more.” MICHAEL CONNELLY
“Julia Keller's lyrical and evocative prose in Bitter River propels the novel until all you can do is hang on until the final page. Her sense of place is spot-on and bittersweet.” C.J. BOX
“Gripping suspense, a fabulous sense of place and nuanced characters you can't wait to come back to. A must read.” KARIN SLAUGHTER
“Remarkably written and remarkably tense. . .I loved it.” DENNIS LEHANE
“A gripping, beautifully-crafted murder mystery. . .Great reading.” SCOTT TUROW
“A terrific debut--atmospheric, suspenseful, assured.” LAURA LIPPMAN
“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.” TOM FRANKLIN
“A soulful depiction of a beautiful, besieged afterthought of a town.” People
“Outstanding.” Publishers Weekly (starred review, Pick of the Week)
“Engrossing...[A] superbly detailed and suspense-drenched mystery.” Library Journal (starred review, Debut of the Month)
“A powerful debut.” Oline Cogdill, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Library Journal - Audio
Keller's (A Killing in the Hills) second mystery is again set in Acker's Gap, WV. Here, the body of a pregnant young woman, Lucinda Trimble, is found in a car in the Bitter River, but an autopsy reveals that she was strangled before she went into the water. Prosecuting attorney Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong dig into Lucinda's complicated past to identify her killer. As the story progresses, the investigation takes a backseat to a detailed examination of life in a small, decaying Appalachian town. Keller gives us numerous character studies of its inhabitants and provides a feel for living in the mountains. She also tells a problematic secondary story regarding a man from Elkins's past whose appearance in town leads to a tragedy, which serves as a distraction from the main portion of the novel. Reader Shannon McManus does an excellent job with the story. VERDICT Recommended to listeners interested in stories set in Appalachia. ["Even an imperfect Keller novel is still well worth readers' time. Recommend to mystery lovers who enjoy richly drawn settings and whip-smart heroines," read the review of the Minotaur: St. Martin's hc, LJ Xpress Reviews, 8/30/13.]—Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Parkersburg Lib.
A tough prosecutor in a small West Virginia town battles criminals and inner demons. Bell Elkins grew up poor in Acker's Gap, made a success of her life against all odds, married a local boy, made good and moved on to a high-paying job in Washington before giving it all up and returning to her mountain town. Now, her teen daughter is living with her father in D.C. after her involvement with one of Bell's cases almost proved the death of her. Bell, who loves her job and her beautiful, dirt-poor hometown, is waiting hopefully for her sister, who killed their father in order to protect Bell, to come back home after her release from prison. While she waits, she and her friend Sheriff Nick Fogelsong have a tough case to solve: the murder of a promising high school student, Lucinda Trimble, who refused to give up her unborn baby. Lucinda's mother is a flower child who ekes out a living selling folk art to tourists, her father a high school bad boy, always in trouble, who still cares for the daughter he deserted years ago. The high school sweetheart Lucinda was set to marry becomes a suspect, along with the members of his disapproving family. Meanwhile, Bell's latest romantic interest loses a leg when the town's popular restaurant is blown to smithereens (accident? bomb?), killing several of her friends. And she must cope with an old friend, a former CIA interrogator, who needs to spend some time in a peaceful setting but may be bringing his dangerous past with him. A worthy follow-up to Bell's debut (A Killing in the Hills, 2012): a literate, gritty, character-driven tale with another surprise ending.
Read an Excerpt
Three people stood on the south bank of the Bitter River. Two of them, a petite woman and a stocky man, had stationed themselves near the water but the third, an older and even bigger man in a long black overcoat and a brown flat-brimmed sheriff’s hat, was positioned halfway up the steep slope, a spot that granted him a more generous perspective. All three looked anxious, uncomfortable, as if they weren’t quite certain what to do or how to be. Motion was their preferred state, action was how they defined themselves, and this interval—this standing and waiting—was unusual. It made them feel clumsy, pointless. Their arms flared out slightly from the sides of their bodies, hands retracted into fists that they held next to their thighs. Each wore a pair of dusty black boots. Their feet were spread a little wider apart than normal, to help them keep their balance on the riverbank.
It was a cold, dry Thursday morning in early March. The occasional cloud sliding by was difficult to distinguish from the sky surrounding it; both were flat and gray and featureless. Here on the ground, though, there was a sharp-edged clarity to things, as if the shapes had been carefully traced and then cut out with a new pair of scissors and arranged for maximum dramatic effect.
The call had come in just after sunrise, when a passerby spotted what would prove to be the roof of a car in the river. As she moved closer, the caller said, she had noticed the rhyming ruts leading to the water’s edge. It wasn’t unusual to glimpse junk dumped in the river—tires, old washing machines, and beer cans led all categories—but when the object was big, as big, possibly, as a car, people liked to have the law check it out. The investigation had been delayed until Leroy Perkins could get here with his rig.
Right now, Leroy was up to his biceps in the greenish-black water, cursing in a low continuous mutter—his mutter seemed to mimic the river’s steady rustle—as he tried to attach the big rusty hook under any part of the car. The hook bounced and joggled at the end of a greasy black cable. The cable stretched its way to a winch on Leroy’s truck, which he had backed down the riverbank as far as he could safely go. The truck was pale blue and on the driver’s-side door, in flaking white letters, were painted the words LP TOWING HAULING & SALVAGE, and on the next line ACKER’S GAP WV.
The river wasn’t forbiddingly deep here. The current was more of a frisky scallop than the thunderous wallop that would come later, after the water had twisted around the mountain and picked up speed on its way to the mighty Ohio. There was no real danger. But retrieving the vehicle was proving to be a tedious and cumbersome task, and Leroy was ticked off.
“Damnation,” he sputtered. He was a big-nosed, medium-sized man, compact and balding, with a horseshoe of curly gray hair that looked as if it had been perched on his ears like a commemorative wreath. His denim coveralls were permanently stained with grease and muck, and his thigh-high rubber wading boots—not currently visible, submerged as they were beneath the viscous liquid constituting the Bitter River—were dark green, with a thin line of yellow piping around the tops.
“Damnation,” he repeated, grabbing at the hook, having missed the back bumper yet again. He had meaty, callused hands that clearly had done this sort of thing many times before. “I’m tellin’ you, Nick,” he complained, “this ain’t as easy as it looks.”
Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the big man in the long black coat standing higher on the riverbank, nodded. “I hear you, Leroy,” he said.
Greg Greenough, one of the two deputies, turned and looked up at the sheriff. His expression spoke for itself: Maybe give him a hand?
Fogelsong shook his head. No. Leroy was the professional. The sheriff didn’t want his personnel interfering. One slip of that winch, one errant swing of that big hook, and Deputy Greenough’s head would open up like a melon dropped on a sidewalk. The sheriff had seen it happen before. Twenty years ago, as a young deputy loaned out temporarily to another county, Fogelsong had investigated a felonious assault allegedly perpetrated on a coal barge, and while he was ambling around the deck, kicking at coils of rope and kneeling down to run a thumb across motley stains on the pitted wood, he watched a six-year-old kid—the son of the barge owner—get his scalp ripped off when he blundered into the path of a swinging hook. Everybody was sorry, everybody felt terrible about it, but those torrents of emotion and regret couldn’t bring back Chauncey Simms, who had bled out in minutes, his small body twitching on the deck like a caught fish.
That was the kid’s name. The sheriff hadn’t realized until now that he still remembered the name, all these years later. Seeing the big hook had jarred it loose from his memory.
He wondered what the boy’s father had done with his grief and his guilt—and his love for his boy. Where had he put them? Had he carted them around with him, all these years, like extra cargo on the barge? Or had he been able to unload them somewhere along the way?
“Hold up, hold up,” Leroy called out. Groping under the water, he’d come to the open window on the driver’s side, and that was when his probing fingers had encountered something. Something that didn’t feel like part of a car.
Fogelsong shoved his memories aside and bucked forward, almost toppling on the sharp-angled bank; he’d momentarily forgotten where he was. He righted himself and kept going. Greenough and the other deputy, Pam Harrison, let him pass and enter the water first, then followed right behind.
“Just a sec,” Leroy said. “Lemme get this out of the way,” he added, meaning the big hook. He backpedaled, securing the hook between his hands for safekeeping, and gave the sheriff a clear lane to that side of the car.
“Shoulda brought your hip waders,” Leroy lectured amiably, watching the water fill in around Fogelsong’s churning knees and then his hips and his waist and his chest as the sheriff moved forward, his big black coat spreading out around him like a water lily.
Fogelsong didn’t answer. He was reaching under the river’s surface, feeling for whatever had caught Leroy’s attention. He couldn’t see his own hands—the water was alarmingly cold and dark, the start of the massive spring runoff from the mountains—and he was aware of the spongy river bottom below, sucking at his boots.
He located the window frame. Let his fingers inch hurriedly around the curve, like a blind man trying to read a face. He reached in.
And then he found it. He waited a second or so, to let the human being part of him register the shock before the sheriff part of him—the professional part—kicked in.
Instantly, he knew what it was.
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.
Copyright © 2013 by Julia Keller