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by Julia keller
Minotaur, August 2018
320 pages
ISBN: 1250190924

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Bell Elkins has returned a second time to her hardscrabble West Virginia town of Ackers Gap where she spent years as a driven prosecutor, trying to bring some justice to a place suffering from poverty, lack of opportunity, and lately a devastating opioid epidemic. Following the climactic ending of the previous entry in the series, FAST FALLS THE NIGHT, she's an ex-convict completing a sentence she insisted on serving, working nights cleaning a clinic caring for infants born addicted as court-ordered community service.

The crisis depicted with great urgency in the previous book in this series hasn't let up. We meet a woman whose son has been lost to drugs who has decided on a desperate way out of an impossible situation, but it turns out her husband has a plan, too. Those late nights he's been working at the bank? He was trying to gather information to save his son's life, but nothing turns out as expected.

Though Bell is no longer a prosecutor, no longer even a lawyer, she has a case of her own she wants to pursue. She wants to go right to the top, to the chief executive of the pharmaceutical company that marketed their products as non-addictive. But when her former assistant Rhonda Lovejoy finds herself swamped in a murder case with too many alibis for the usual suspects, she seeks out the help of Bell and another sidelined colleague, a sheriff's deputy who had been paralyzed by a bullet and is having a hard time finding a reason to live. There are some twists and turns before the case is solved, but it's not until the final pages that we solve the deeper mystery: why Bell Elkins insisted on throwing away her career to serve a sentence for a crime she didn't need to confess to, insisting on punishment that nobody but she felt she deserved. Though she won't be practicing law in future, there are hints she'll continue fighting for justice and for her small, hardscrabble mountain town.

Julia Keller does a great job of writing about a gritty, difficult reality while also letting us see the softer side of her characters and their relationships. Often stories about the destructiveness of the drug trade wrap themselves in a kind of glamorous violence. Here, it's as if the setting of a traditional village mystery had endured decades of poverty and become overrun with heroin. Keller doesn't spare us the reality of hopelessness and dysfunction, but there's something hopeful about these mountain people stubbornly persisting in looking out for each other in a community that's lost its way through no fault of its own.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, September 2018

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