Mysteries: 3 vivid tales of murder, dreams - even a ghost

smacknee@mcclatchy.comJune 15, 2013 

A Killing in the Hills, by Julia Keller. Minotaur Books. 376 pages.

After living a less-than-charmed life as a foster kid in Acker’s Gap, W.Va., “a shabby afterthought of a town tucked in the notch between two peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, like the last letter stuck in a mail slot after the post office has closed down for keeps,” Bell Elkins is back in town as the county prosecutor. For a sleepy little community, Acker’s Gap has no shortage of work for her and the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong. It’s because of the drug epidemic that has transformed the rural Appalachians.

Keller’s debut mystery begins with the shooting of three elderly men in a diner. Bell’s teenage daughter is a witness and is afraid to tell everything she knows.

Julia Keller is a vividly visual writer who gives us something to like on every page: a human insight, a scrap of description (“Redbud trees, now just skinny bundles of sticks dreaming of spring”). If you love language used interestingly and beautifully, and characters who could walk right off the page, pick this one up. It includes a bonus chapter of Keller’s next book, “Bitter River,” due out in September.

Claire Dewitt and the Bohemian Highway, by Sara Gran. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 288 pages.

Hip young detective Claire Dewitt returns with a mashup of cases, all colorfully named as usual: The Case of the Missing Miniature Horses, The Case of the End of the World and The Case of the Kali Yuga (a Hindu dark age), which is the main event. A musician Claire once dated, who went on to marry someone else, has been killed during an apparent robbery, and his heartbroken sister asks Claire to investigate.

Claire and her associates see detection as a mystic calling. Her method relies greatly on dreams and visions, which are helped along by seemingly impossible amounts of recreational drugs and frequent one-night stands.

Joyland, by Stephen King. Hard Case Crime. 288 pages.

It’s hard to separate Stephen King from the horror genre, but he has been a fan of the Hard Case Crime imprint since it started, and contributed one of the first titles, “The Colorado Kid.” He told NPR host Terry Gross, “Hard Case Crime is a throwback to the books that I loved as a kid.”

His second Hard Case title, “Joyland,” is the nostalgic tale of a college student’s summer at a North Carolina amusement park. This being Stephen King, the park is haunted; this being Hard Case Crime, the story is more about solving the murder than about seeing the ghost.

The secret of King’s success is as much his storytelling as his monsters, so you’ll find his usual unique characters and frequent foreshadowing, all set authentically in 1973 – not a year a lot of people find worth immortalizing, but King gets details right like the top 40 hits and how people navigated before cellphones and the Internet.


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