Skip to main content

The Cold Way Home


The Cold Way Home

I have developed an affinity for Julia Keller’s Bell Elkins series. Acker’s Gap exists in that foggy neverland between fiction and reality, modeled after a real-world small town on the outskirts of Huntington, West Virginia, which has been assimilated into its big brother’s city limits but continues to function as a neighborhood. Bell Elkins, Keller’s complex heroine, has lived in the area all her life. Her circumstances have changed as the series has evolved, and the former town prosecutor is now self-employed as a private investigator.

The story of how this came to be is set out in full in the previous seven volumes but is summarized in the newly published THE COLD WAY HOME, which gives Elkins’ experience as a resident of the area a leg up on solving a bizarre crime that has its roots many decades in the past.

"Keller’s ability to dig less than obvious plots out of dark landscapes is noteworthy.... I, for one, will be happy to read these novels as long as she continues to write them."

The opioid crisis that plagues Appalachia generally and the Huntington area specifically is displayed front and center as the book commences with a startling vignette that will launch any number of readers (including this one) out of their seats. Keller, who honed her writing chops as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune, knows how to get the attention of her audience and keep it, and she displays this knowledge early on. The vignette in question hovers over the book like a shadow from beginning to end. However, it shares space with a search that is undertaken when a young woman, who has not learned the lesson of the evil of bad companions, goes missing. Her mother hires Elkins’ team of investigators, which includes former sheriff Nick Fogelsong and former deputy Jake Oakes, to find her.

A rumor here and a tip there lead Elkins to a grim discovery: a body with a fatal wound that is obviously anything but self-inflicted. The corpse is found on the ruins of Wellwood, a notorious psychiatric hospital for the poor that burned to the ground decades ago. The woods around the destroyed building was a play area for Elkins during her childhood, but for the most part, it has anything but good memories for her.

Elkins and her team, not to mention local law enforcement, are faced with an uphill battle while trying to speak for the dead woman. They must uncover why she was where she was at the time of her death and the motive for killing her in order to bring the murderer to justice. All that they have going for them, at least at first, is a mysterious meeting that the deceased had with someone at the town diner. Then a package is received at Elkins’ office, which helps to slowly unravel the dark and mysterious ribbon that is wrapped around the box that hides the mystery.

Meanwhile, Elkins, Fogelsong and Oakes are each attempting to deal with their own issues in both the past and the present, all of which have an effect on the ultimate outcome of the story and with the series going forward. Surprises abound as revelations occur. Keep yourself strapped in as you read.

Keller reminds me of Helen Fuller Orton, a prolific children’s mystery author who wrote books that often took place in rustic settings. Orton could wring every bit of mystery out of a situation without the reader knowing it and make it look interesting, while populating her books with identifiable and sympathetic characters. Although this series is most definitely not for children, Keller’s ability to dig less than obvious plots out of dark landscapes is noteworthy. One has the feeling that she is just getting started with her tales of Bell Elkins and the streets of Acker’s Gap. I, for one, will be happy to read these novels as long as she continues to write them.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 23, 2019

The Cold Way Home
by Julia Keller

  • Publication Date: August 20, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 125019122X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250191229