In The Spotlight: Julia Keller’s Bitter River

>In The Spotlight: Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in TinselHello, All,

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


Filed under Bitter River, Julia Keller

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Julia Keller’s Bitter River

  1. Wow that is some story to take in. Seems like a good read too. I’ve not read this or any other of her books, but will keep an eye out. Love getting insights to the way things work, especially in tight knit communities and the relationships therein, which seem as if they are dealt with wonderfully by the author; plenty to get the reader’s attention and keep it. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Jane – I really do think Keller is talented at showing what life is like in a small and, as you say, tight-knit, community. Things don’t work in Acker’s Gap as they do in other places and it’s interesting to see how Keller handles that. I hope that, if you get the chance to read this, you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Johnny Ojanpera

    Sounds like a good one, Margot. I think that the setting of a book is very important, and also shouldn’t be very complicated. For instance, when I think of a small town in West Virginia there are many implications and assumptions I can make about the place. I have read books where the setting is over-explained to the point of over shadowing the plot, and even being a distraction from the characters.

    • Johnny – Thanks. You make an interesting point about setting. On the one hand, it is an important part of any novel. On the other, as you say, the setting can so much the focus of the novel that it takes away from the plot and the characters. In my personal opinion that doesn’t happen here, but it is always a risk.

      • Johnny Ojanpera

        This story sounds like an exception. I have been thinking about setting a lot lately because I am writing a story that takes place in multiple areas. I am attempting to find the balance from place to place without saying too much. Thanks for making me think again. 🙂

  3. As always, great spotlight, Margot, and yet another ‘new’ author! On the whole I think I prefer small communities in crime – they tend to give better opportunites for a range of motives when, as you say, everyone knows the victim and each other. A bit like the good old ‘country house’ mysteries, but on a slightly wider and more modern scale….

    • FictionFan – Thanks for the kind words. And I think you have a point about small town mysteries. They allow for all sorts of relationship networks and motives for murder. I hadn’t really thought of how similar they are in that way to the old-style country house mystery, but they really are. Now, that in itself is an interesting topic…

  4. Another brilliant choice for the spotlight; I do like stories set in small communities mainly because it gives the reader more context to the various relationships. As much as endings where everything isn’t made right by the outing of the killer, they do feel more realistic. Thanks for sharing this one with us Margot.

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. In this one, we really do get to see how all of the different lives in the community are connected; it’s even commented on in the novel. And that network of relationships does give the reader a solid context for understanding how and why the murder takes place. It motivates other things in the novel too. And I’m with you about endings where everything isn’t made all right again. On the one hand, I do like to know the truth behind the story’s main events. I feel cheated if I don’t think the author’s done that. On the other, I think in real life, just solving a murder doesn’t make people’s lives happy and whole again. So when crime fiction reflects that I think it’s more realistic.

  5. Another great author to discover, and I’m glad some aspects are left open, that seems always a bit more realistic – thanks Margot.

  6. Col

    Sounds like the sort of book I would enjoy, onto the list it goes!

    • I think you might like it too, Col. There’s a layer to the novel that I didn’t mention because saying much about it would be a spoiler. But I think you’d like that layer.

  7. Sounds intriguing, Margot. Another one for the (groaning) TBR pile…

  8. I like the sound of this, just the kind of setting I like. It sounds like a very complex plot…

    • Moira – I think the setting is done very well actually. The plot is, as you say, complex, but not impenetrable. And I think the network of relationships in the town is fascinating.

  9. This sounds interesting and not just a run of the mill crime novel. I think I’ll add it to my ever increasing TBR. Thank you for a great spotlight Margot.

    • Rebecca – Thanks for the kind words. This one really is an interesting blend of community/character study and crime novel. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  10. kathy d.

    I read Keller’s first book, liked it, and will someday read this one. I feel pulled to read more U.S. mysteries these days, but I must pursue the global ones. The library isn’t helped me pursue this goal, as it’s hard to get global books these days.
    This will be easier to get.

    • Kathy – I know what you mean. One of my local libraries has comparatively few global books. The other has more. So I can often get the books that I want. Still, it does get difficult at times to find the book one wants. This one though, is easier, I think.

  11. This is on my shelf to read. I must get around to it. Thanks for the review!

  12. tracybham

    Just what I need, Margot. Another author to add to my piles. But this does sound very good. It seems to be the first in a series … I will see if I can find the first one. Do you think it matters?

    • Tracy – I know what you mean about yet another book for the TBR pile…. This one is the second book featuring Bell Elkins. The first is A Killing in the Hills, which I also recommend. It’s not necessary – at least I don’t think so – to have read that one to enjoy this one, although there are references to it.

  13. Sounds like a great book. I love books that are set in a community, and there are linkages everywhere. Where I am coming from is a book I just finished reading- Telling Tales by Anne Cleeves. Everyone seems to be connected to everyone else, though very little of it appears on the surface. White Noise by the same author was pretty similar too.
    And I just love how you bring out the essence of a book. Thank you so much, Margot.

    • Natasha – Cleeves does such a good job of evoking that kind of community, I think. And i’m glad you mentioned Telling Tales, as it brings that out quite well. As to Bitter River, I think Keller really shows us life in a small community in West Virginia very effectively. I hope that if you read it, you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for the kind words 🙂

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