Judi C. (QUARTZSITE, AZ)
Set in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Bitter River centers on solving a pregnant teenage girl's murder in the small mountain town of Acker's Gap in Rathune County. Belfa Elkins is prosecuting attorney of Raythune County and although the story is told in third person, it is mostly her point of view; her thoughts on returning to and living in this small mountain town.
Anne G. (Byram, MS)
When Bell learns of the dead girl, she is driving back from Washington, DC after spending a brief amount of time with her own teenage daughter now living with her dad (at sixteen, she had a choice as to which parent to live with and thus chose to get off the mountain).
The dead girl is Lucinda Trimble, a star student being raised by her off-beat, hippie mother, Maddie, who lives in a cottage on Route 4 with a perpetual yard sale of home-made trinkets. "Maddie Trimble was everything Bell Elkins despised about some of the people who lived in this area. She had raised eccentricity to an art form, and helped perpetuate the stereotype that 'mountain folk' were exotic characters running around in bare feet and cutoff shorts, mixing up weeds and herbs to make nutty potions intended to heal everything from heartaches to hemorrhoids."
Sheriff Nick Fogelsong is Bell's counterpart in the investigations and a good friend. But the two of them get off to bad start with this investigation. Nick used to see Maddy years ago, before Maddy started seeing Lucinda's father. That was over seventeen years ago, "Except in these parts, the story never ended. No matter how long ago it was, Nick Fogelsong had a link to Maddie Trimble, a tie. When he talked to her these days, Bell thought, he probably had to raise his voice a little bit to be heard over a soft confusion of echoes." Nick has a blind eye to Maddy... and Bell bluntly points this out.
There are two other main story threads running through this novel. Bell's sister was released on parole nearly 5 months earlier after almost 30 years in jail for killing their father. Bell expected to pick her up at the prison and take her back to Acker's Gap to help her get back on her feet, but when she went to get Shirley, Shirley had already left, and did not leave any contact information. Bell feels confident that Shirley will make her way back to Acker's Gap and thus is compelled to stay there until she does. The reason for Shirley's imprisonment and the debt that Belfa owes here sister is backdrop to help provide an understanding as to Bell's reasons for being/staying there.
The third thread involves Matt Harless, an old family friend/neighbor from when Bell and Sam were still married. On Bell's latest trip to D.C., she is surprised when Matt joins them (her ex-husband Sam, his girlfriend and their daughter, Carla) for dinner. As it turns out Matt has retired from the military and needs time to decompress and wants to see Acker's Gap, the place that he heard so much about from Bell all those years ago when they used to run together. As it turns out, Matt has as many secrets as anyone in Acker's Gap. And may or may not be involved in the a tragic explosion that occurs about halfway through the book.
Although this is technically a murder mystery, it is a literary one in that the setting plays as much a role in the story as the characters. Bell (or the author Julia Keller) shares insight into this community, such as the familiarity of people, the long memories, the fact that "In a small town everybody is next of kin to everybody else." She also spends a bit of time reflecting on the socio-economics and the inherit problems. For example, she explains how the prescription drug problem is far worse problem than the more widely known Meth problem --- and why it is more difficult for law enforcement to deal with. Or, "The fact that over half of the children in Raythune County go to bed hungry a night..." And even reveals a bit of interesting history as to how West Virginia because a state under Abraham Lincoln.
Julia Keller creatively uses metaphors to bring home a point. But to be honest, some of them just left me scratching my head as I tried to figure them out. For example, "The flounce and swoop of his accent reminded Bell of a dust ruffle on a bedspread." Huh? Or "Her hair was the color of a dirty Q-tip..." (I prefer not to think on this one too long.) and "she heard a faint and sustained jingle in the distance, almost a choral singing. The sound, she knew, came for Paw Paw Creek..." (Choral singing? Please, just give me the gurgling brook!)
But every now and then she comes up with some really good analogies: "Gossip leaked out of a county courthouse like chicken broth through a slotted spoon;" or "Dumping coffee on an empty stomach-- which she'd just done-- was akin to walking in a biker bar and calling the first guy you see a candy-ass. Just asking for trouble;" or "Seeing Wendy Doggett in a cell in the Raythune County Jail would be a little jarring, Bell had assumed, like finding escargot on the menu at White Castle."
From the start, it is assumed that the murderer is someone that knows Lucinda. "Statistics tell the tale, folks. Look around. You've got a heck of a lot more to fear from that person sitting right next to you on the couch night after night than you do from a stranger hanging out in a dark alley." Even at that, in a small town there are a lot of people that know this girl, and thus a lot of suspects to get through.
"Small towns, Bell thought. Jesus."
Even small towns can have big mysteries
Bell Elkins, the county prosecuting attorney, is always reminding herself that "Everyone in this town is related to everyone else". A tragedy befalling one person or family will cause ripples that involve most of the people in the small town of Acker's Gap, WV. Finding a submerged car containing a body in Bitter River begins the unfolding of a small town tragedy that involves Bell and many of her friends. The initial murder is not resolved before more criminal acts are committed. Ms. Keller portrays strong characterizations, complex family relationships, small town politics, mystery, and a bit of romance with a deft hand. Although this is the second book in what is hoped will be a continuing series featuring Bell Elkins, it is not absolutely necessary to read the first one . It is hoped, however, there will be a third novel to resolve some of Bell's family problems, and the challenges in the novel's non-traditional romance.