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by Julia Keller
Minotaur, August 2017
304 pages
ISBN: 1250089611

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Julia Keller earned a Pulitzer as a journalist before turning to crime fiction. Perhaps that gives her greater license than others to rip stories from the headline. She explains in an author's note that this one, the sixth in her Bell Elkins series, was inspired during a visit to her home town of Huntington West Virginia, waking to learn the city had recorded 28 heroin overdoses in a single 24-hour period, two of them fatal. She imagined the effect such a crisis would have on her fictional mountain community of Ackers Gap where Bel Elkins, the county prosecutor, does her best to protect her home town from an epidemic of addiction that feeds off poverty, joblessness, and the loss of hope.

Readers are warned at the outset that the story will take place in a single day. It begins shortly after midnight when a gas station attendant lets a girl use the bathroom. When she doesn't come out, he asks a police officer to check. It's too late. She has died of an overdose.

At two a.m. Bell Elkins, a native of Ackers Gap who escaped a nightmarish childhood, only to return to serve as county prosecutor, is lying awake thinking about how she came home to make a difference and how pointless that seems as heroin takes the community in its grip. She's pondering an offer a friend has made to join a new law practice in DC Is there any point trying to help people who don't want to be helped? What good is she doing in a town where nothing is getting better?

When she arrives at work in the morning, she learns police have responded to five overdoses since midnight. Someone is cutting heroin with carfentanil, a synthetic drug that's more than two thousand times the strength of heroin, and as the day progresses police and EMTs will be on the run, bringing addicts back from the brink, putting up with their resentment at being pulled out of their stupor. Those dealing with the crisis wonder why they bother; the people they're working so hard to save have already given up and will only stagger off in search of their next score.

The pace of the book is slow at first as the characters are developed, but as the crisis deepens, it accelerates, with suspenseful plot tributaries flowing into the story, adding to the sense of time slipping away as things grow more and more desperate. Keller has always balanced a fierce love for the place she describes and its people with a gritty realism. This is the darkest entry in the series, and the shocking ending will leave readers wondering if dawn will ever come to these hills.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, June 2017

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