“Three people stood on the south bank of the Bitter River.” And we stand there, too, plunged immediately into this remarkable melding of urgent mystery story and literary novel. Nick Fogelsong is the sheriff of Acker’s Gap, a depressed burg in West Virginia with a sky-high unemployment rate and a plague of prescription drug addiction, surrounded by starkly gorgeous scenery. He is on the river directing the removal of a car spotted within the water. It feels like a routine morning until the sloshing tow truck operator finally reaches the car, where he finds a body inside.
Bell Elkins, the county’s prosecuting attorney, is on her way home to Acker’s Gap from visiting her teenage daughter, who currently lives with her ex-husband in Alexandria, Virginia. Having risen at four in the morning to drive, she is fighting to stay awake. However, that changes when her phone rings and the sheriff delivers his news. The body in the car is Lucinda Trimble, a 16-year-old athlete and academic star. The kicker: She didn’t drown but was dead before she entered the river. Also: she was pregnant.
"You don’t often find lovely phrasing in a murder mystery, as we do in BITTER RIVER, along with fully three-dimensional characters...and a gripping, twisting I-can’t-put-this-down plot."
It is Nick’s unhappy duty to inform Lucinda’s family of her death, which is made even more difficult by his past connection with Lucinda’s single mother, Maddie. Of course, their romance was 27 years ago when Nick was just 25, before he married and long before Maddie had Lucinda. Still, when Bell meets him at Ike’s, the local coffee shop, she points out that it was unprofessional for him to go alone to deliver the news because of the history he shares with Maddie. After all, Maddie is a possible suspect, along with Lucinda’s boyfriend, Shawn Doggett. Personal ties can make an investigator unfocused and less efficient. Bell’s frustration causes her to snap at Nick, saying she thought she could depend on him to do his job right. Nick leaves, just as Maddie calls him to come back to the house. He knows better but can’t resist.
Meanwhile, Bell can’t resist her own impulses. She texts Clayton Meckling, who is 15 years younger than her, but that hasn’t stopped them from starting an intense romantic relationship. Clay is easygoing but a bit disturbed when he learns that Matt Harless, a friend from Bell’s past, plans to spend time in Acker’s Gap. And soon, as Matt moves into town and one baffling (and sometimes devastating) event after another rocks the little town, Bell becomes uneasy, even as she works to unravel the puzzle surrounding Lucinda’s murder.
You don’t often find lovely phrasing in a murder mystery, as we do in BITTER RIVER, along with fully three-dimensional characters (all of them, including bit characters --- but particularly Bell and Nick, who could walk right off the page) and a gripping, twisting I-can’t-put-this-down plot. Yet the gorgeous writing does not overshadow the story; it is never distracting or intrusive, simply adding an extra layer of pleasure to what is already quite the stellar read. Also notable is the author’s depiction of Acker’s Gap, which is so defined and present that it stars as a main character.
All in all, BITTER RIVER is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a very long time. I missed Julia Keller’s first novel starring Bell Elkins, A KILLING IN THE HILLS, but you’d better believe I hope to remedy that in a hurry!
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on September 13, 2013