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by Julia Keller, read by Shannon McManus
Brilliance, June 2013
Unabridged pages
ISBN: 1469216485

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A KILLING IN THE HILLS is the promising debut novel from Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, and the second installment, BITTER RIVER, has already appeared. Keller has set her series in Acker's Gap, a small town nestled in the beautiful West Virginia mountains, just a few hours from the Capitol. Bell Elkins was born there, but after tragic events destroyed her family, she moved to Washington to make a living as an attorney. When her power marriage to another lawyer fell apart, she decided to return to Acker's Gap with her daughter, Carla, and run for the office of prosecuting attorney--despite good advice from old friends on the perils of public service in that community.

Narcotics played a role in destroying Bell's parents, an event darkly hinted at early on. As a result, she is on a crusade to prosecute drug offenders to the full extent of the law. But the old stills and imported drugs of the backwoods have been replaced in Acker's Gap and everywhere else by enterprising locals who produce pills and powders far more potent, addictive, and profitable than the marijuana and white lightning of the past. One episode of "Breaking Bad" convinced most people that chemistry has many uses.

Bell is not a total "try them and fry them" type of prosecutor. Early on, she visits the family of an adolescent who has killed a younger boy. She can tell from the description of the accused that his mother offers that the defendant is in some way developmentally disabled. She manages to postpone the hearing while she searches for some humane solution.

Even more pressing than the war against drugs, Bell has to help her old friend and mentor, Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, investigate the seemingly random slaughter of three older men at the Salty Dawg, the local diner. Though killings seem by no means rare in this town, still no one can think of why a stranger would gun down three of their citizens for no apparent reason.

Moreover, unknown to Bell, Carla was in the diner, and she saw the killer's face.

At home, Carla is Bell's biggest problem. Moody and aloof, Carla can easily lead Bell to believe that her unhappiness is with the small town itself and not with what she has witnessed. Life in the District of Columbia with her father seems a lovely option on all fronts for this teen.

It isn't long before Bell becomes the target of the killers and drug lords. The question is whether she will round them up before they kill her and her family. The novel is so action-driven that the reader has a half dozen plots laid out before the work is a third over. Considering that Keller is writing a series, she might have saved some of the back story and subplots for later volumes, but listeners will get a full buffet in this volume.

Shannon McManus has the right range to go with the busy plotline and lush setting. While I do not know what region of the country she hails from, she does narrate a number of crime series set in the South, including Nancy Naigle's Adams Grove novels, which take place in Virginia. McManus has the many twangs and drawls down, but she is not limited to capturing regional flare. She creates excellent characters. Her performance adds dimension to Bell's character and captures Carla's pouty adolescence and painful position. She demonstrates excellent range in portraying the male villains and the trustworthy sheriff. Somehow, she manages to keep perfect pace with Keller's meaty script whereas a lesser performer might be tempted to put the brakes on for a moment.

Keller and McManus team up for a worthy debut for what is likely to become an enduring series. Keller's journalistic eye for detail pays off in her creation of a noteworthy new series that will gain fans, despite the crowded field.

An avid audiophile, Karla Jay is a retired professor of English and Women's & Gender Studies. She is a frequent contributor to this site.

Reviewed by Karla Jay, January 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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