Book review: Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller

Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller
Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller

Spare a thought for West Virginia county prosecutor Bell Elkins... her volatile sister is free after serving 30 years for murder, her daughter doesn’t want to come home for the summer and there’s a killer on the loose.

Julia Keller’s high-suspense, atmospheric crime series just gets better and better. As if place and plotting weren’t enough to grab her readers by the throat, superb writing and extraordinarily vivid characterisation make these books a drop-dead, murder mystery must-have.

There is class written on every page of Keller’s latest thriller which pitches the small town girl turned top lawyer against a ruthless, unpredictable serial killer bent on destruction.

The murder of retired coal miner Freddie Arnett outside his home in Acker’s Gap has injected a paralysing chill into ‘the warm, loose-limbed langour’ of summer in the Appalachians.

The town, increasingly blighted by the thriving trade in illegal prescription drugs, is edgy and restive, and Raythune County prosecutor Bell Elkins is feeling the absence of her reliable Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the closest thing to a father she has ever had.

Nick is on leave and Bell faces a murder with no prints, no motive, no suspects and no lead. It seems almost as if the steamy summer night ‘had itself reared up and come after’ the victim.

Bell is also dealing with her daughter’s decision to spend the summer in Europe and the return from prison of her older sister Shirley Dolan who has been incarcerated for 30 years for killing their abusive father and, like Bell, carries the indelible scars of a savage past.

It was Shirley who made Bell’s life and career possible – college, law school, motherhood and public office. Shirley ‘never had the chance to be young’ so Bell puts up with her wild behaviour and cuts her some slack.

Meanwhile, in another quarter of Acker’s Gap, Lindy Crabtree reads her books while her father, another retired miner who is now suffering from dementia, lives in the basement converted by Lindy into a makeshift mine of upturned tables and scraps of lumber to calm his ‘terrible waiting rages.’

When a second man is murdered, Bell’s troubles fade into the background with all her energies invested to working out who could be responsible. As the tension escalates and suspects begin to emerge, Bell will have to face demons from her own past as she comes head-to-head with the killer...

Keller writes with extraordinary clarity and elegance, creating not just an intriguing, fast-paced crime mystery but the very essence of a backwater town plagued by poverty, hopelessness and addiction, and a cast of fractured people battling disillusionment, despair and dark secrets.

At the heart of the action is Bell, a woman of our times, under pressure from all quarters but keeping her head above a sea of professional and domestic woes. Intensely human, inherently humane, hard thinking and clever, she’s an irresistible heroine.

Let’s hope her career in Acker’s Gap is as safe as her capable pair of hands…

(Headline, paperback, £14.99)