Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, place, local culture and atmosphere can have a real impact on the way people think and behave. So it’s no surprise that setting and context play an important role in fiction, too. Today let’s look at this factor of setting and atmosphere as it plays out in Julia Keller’s Bitter River.
Early one morning, the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is found in a car at the bottom of Bitter River, near Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. It’s soon shown, too, that she was dead before she went into the water, so this was no accident. Raythune County prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins has been in Washington visiting her daughter Carla, but she hears the news during her trip back to Acker’s Gap.
When she returns, Elkins begins to work with local sheriff Nick Fogelsong to find out who killed Lucinda and why. Acker’s Gap is a small community, so everyone is affected by Lucinda’s death. And just about everyone knew her. This means that the investigating team has to sift through a number of relationships Lucinda had to find out who would have a motive to murder her.
One possibility for instance is her boyfriend Shawn Doggett. When the local coroner finds out that Lucinda was pregnant at the time of her death, Doggett falls under suspicion. So do the other members of his family, who’ve never liked her. Then there’s her mother, Madeline ‘Maddie’ Trimble. There was never any gossip about serious trouble between Maddie and Lucinda, but at the same time, they had arguments, as do many parents and their teen children. And a lot of people think Maddie is strange; some even say she engages in witchcraft. So some locals are quite prepared to suspect her. There are also the various people Lucinda knew at school and in the community. It takes the patient work of looking into all the various aspects of the victim’s life to find out who killed her.
In the meantime, Elkins and Fogelsong are faced with other, equally serious problems. First, someone fires a shot through the building where Elkins and her deputy prosecutors work, nearly killing one of them. Then a bomb goes off at Ike’s, a local landmark diner, killing several of the patrons as well as some of the staff. Are these incidents related to each other? And do they have anything to do with Lucinda’s death? Is someone trying to warn the investigating team off the case?
With the possibility of even more violence coming to Acker’s Gap, Elkins and Fogelsong will have to work as quickly as they can to find out the truth behind those events, and behind Lucinda’s death. And in the end, they do. The answers aren’t happy ones, but they do allow life to go on, as it always has in this small town.
And the small-town West Virginia setting does play an important role in the novel. Originally a mining area, Acker’s Gap has been hit by hard economic times. But it’s got a strong sense of local pride and a very old culture. Everyone knows everyone, and people from the area feel strong ties to it. That, for instance, is part of why Elkins lives and works there. She grew up in Acker’s Gap and feels a part of the fabric of the town.
We see how everything in the town is connected in several ways. For instance, early in the novel, Fogelsong has the thankless task of interviewing Maddie Trimble about her daughter’s death. The job’s only made harder by the fact that he dated Maddie long ago, before she got together with Lucinda’s father. Most of the residents of Acker’s Gap have known Elkins for a long time, too, and this makes some of her interviews awkward as well. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that this inter-connectedness does play a role in the plot.
Another element in the novel is the use of sub-plots to develop the characters. For example, Fogelsong’s wife Mary Sue is a former elementary school teacher who has developed mental illness. He loves her very much, but her situation places a great strain on both of them. Readers who dislike protagonists who wallow in misfortune will be pleased to know though that that doesn’t happen here. Both of these characters do the very best they can, and each turns out to be stronger than it may seem on the surface.
Elkins too has a complicated personal life. She’s the survivor of an abusive childhood who still deals with those ‘ghosts.’ Fear not, though, readers who don’t care for demon-haunted sleuths. Elkins is no self-pitying victim. She has an ongoing relationship; she has a functional life; and she is actually starting to find some contentment. She does worry for her sister Shirley, though, whom she hasn’t seen in a long time, and with whom she would like to re-connect. She hasn’t had an easy time of it, but she’s not lacking in solid coping skills.
Because of what Fogelsong and Elkins do professionally, readers get a look ‘behind the scenes’ at the way law enforcement and legal authorities work together, especially in small towns, to solve cases. To Fogelsong and his team fall the tasks of getting evidence, taking statements and the like. To Elkins and her team falls the task of building a case. In some ways their jobs overlap, and they have an interesting working relationship (and no, it isn’t, and doesn’t become, a romance).
The mysteries themselves make sense when we learn who is behind the events in the novel. And they are solved in a prosaic way. But the solution doesn’t make everything all right again. In some ways this is a very sad story and Keller doesn’t make light of what happens. We see clearly the devastating effect on a small community when some of its members are killed. But the people of Acker’s Gap are tough survivors, and that’s clear in the novel too.
Bitter River is the story of a small community and the intersecting lives of the people in it. It features investigators who’ve grown up there and who have the unpleasant task of investigating people they’ve always known when tragedy strikes. The novel also gives readers a look at life in rural West Virginia – a unique culture to which Keller does not condescend. But what’s your view? Have you read Bitter River? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 20 October/Tuesday 21 October – Night Has a Thousand Eyes – Cornell Woolrich
Monday 27 October/Tuesday 28 October – The Dying Light – Alison Jospeh
Monday 3 November/Tuesday 4 November – The Suspect – Michael Robotham