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by Julia Keller
Minotaur Books, July 2015
288 pages
ISBN: 125004474X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Bell Elkins has a troubling case on her hands. A man developing local support for a significant construction project is found dead and all the evidence points to Royce Dillard, a hermit who shuns society in favor of the abandoned dogs he takes in. Means and opportunity are there, and so is motive. In order to build the massive new resort that will draw tourists into the mountains that surround Akers Gap, the company needs to acquire a small strip of land that belongs to Dillard, who has no intention of selling. When Dillard is confronted by the county sheriff, he's caught in one lie after another.

Bell knows that Dillard still suffers from a disaster that swept his parents and 121 other West Virginians away when an unsafe dam gave way in 1972. A torrent of noxious mining waste destroyed a town in minutes, sweeping houses and lives away. Only two years old when the dam gave way, Dillard was handed up to safety by his father, who sacrificed his own life for that of his son. Though Dillard received a small settlement, he lives a life of quiet poverty, stubbornly resistant to human company and to the offers made for his land.

A lot is riding on the Magic Mountain resort. The ambitious project promises to bring much-needed cash to a dirt-poor Appalachian town. Residents are desperate, now that the coal mines employ machines, not people. But Bell isn't convinced. She resents outsiders' commercial exploitation of the beauty that means so much to her and suspects that locals will be passed over for decent jobs. In spite of her sympathy for Dillard, both she and the new Sheriff think their case is solid. But Bell misses the easy way she and Nick Fogelsong kicked ideas around together before he resigned, and she has a nagging feeling that there's more to Dillard's story than they've uncovered.

The fourth entry in the Bell Elkins series is a well-written and deeply satisfying mystery. As before, the characters are engaging and thoroughly developed; the setting is lovingly brought to life. The mystery itself is nicely constructed and offers the opportunity to explore the complexity of a region that was blighted by coal mining but no longer has its good, if dirty and dangerous, jobs suffering not just the loss of wages, but of dignity and identity.

At one point, Bell takes the environmentalist she has been dating into a mine to show him the unexpected beauty of a coal mine, its dark corridors glittering like the night sky in the light of a headlamp. It's these brief but memorable detours from the urgency of a puzzle that makes this series unusually good. Readers are lucky to have Keller's passionate protagonist share with us the beauty and the troubles of a very real, if fictional, West Virginia community.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, August 2015

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