Ordinary People: Julia Keller’s Bitter River
One of the reasons mysteries are so trashily satisfying, such a good beach read, is that they have an ever-increasing tension, a frisson of excitement, a touch of menace – and then in the end everything is ok. The bad guy is caught. The plucky heroine survives, battered and bruised, but victorious. You understand the motivations of the people that do bad things and either those motivations are so othering – they’re insane cannibals! or so easy to understand – they did it for love! – that you feel comforted at the close of the book. It’s a roller-coaster read: terrifying and dramatic while you’re on it, but drops you off neatly back at the platform when you’re done.
Julia Keller’s Bitter River, and her previous book, A Killing in the Hills, are the opposite of that roller-coaster read. There are no dramatic pull-the-covers=over-your-head-and-squeal sort of moments. You don’t end up where you started. Like the characters, you come through a little bit damaged.
Bitter River is the second book to feature prosecutor Belfa “Bell” Elkins as the main charcter/eventual crime solver. The books are set in a fictional town – Acker’s Gap – in West Virginia – but it is not a weird fictional town like that of the Sue Grafton books. Given the dark emotional under, over, and right straight through currents that characterize these two books, it is unlikely that an author would have wanted to make some actual small town in West Virginia get stuck being the setting.
Elkins is an Acker’s Gap native who left the town years ago to be a lawyer in DC, but then returned back home to her crumbling, shrinking, dying hometown. The town is not one of those absurd “everyone has terrible secrets and is a murderer” small towns, but it is a town that is riddled with the signifiers of American rural poverty: an empty main street, a thriving drug problem, brain drain, you name it. Elkins has a monstrously difficult backstory to contend with and it definitely colors how she moves in the world and what her motivations are, but it isn’t one of those ridiculous “how will she ever escape her tortured past” sorts of things.
The book starts out with a pretty standard traditional story arc. There’s a young bright whole-life-ahead-of-her type who is murdered and no one knows why. As the town’s chief prosecutor, things like this are obviously Elkins’ problem eventually. At the same time, a parallel story of violence begins to run through the story – a shooting, a mysterious person lurking about – and you’ve no idea if they’re connected to the murder. Elkins works in concert with the town sheriff who seems, at first, to be Rural Sheriff 101. He’s a much more complex, finely drawn character than that, though, with a rich interior life and an incongruous but adorable voracious reading habit.
Keller, a West Virginia native who was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune for 12 years and won a Pultizer while there, is a fantastically evocative writer. You can feel the crispness of the mountains, the cramped danger of the logging roads, the claustrophobic press of the small town, the physical weariness of Elkins. As the mystery surrounding the dead girl deepens and the violence in the town increases, you can feel the characters grow taut, stretched thin.
The parallel story lines never really converge neatly and they aren’t supposed to, really. On the way to the end of the book, everyone is torn, run ragged by their lives. The end is…vast. Vast sadness over what has occurred, the vast sweep of the mountain as both comforting and lonely. You know at the end that the characters in the book will endure, not out of some plucky Southern grit sort of thing, but because they must, because they have no other choice. Keller takes the normal, the mundane, the slow wearing down caused by everyday tragedies and makes all these things soar, makes them into a thing of rough beauty.
Should you read it? Most definitely. It’s an exploration of the human condition, of how people endure, disguised as a mystery novel.
Rating: On a scale from Patricia Highsmith to Dennis Lehane, this is a solid Sara Paretsky.