“The Cold Way Home” by Julia Keller is the latest in her series of books about Bell Elkins, former prosecutor in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. Acker’s Gap is one of many impoverished former mining towns that are losing residents and succumbing to the opioid crisis. While this is the eighth book in the series, it also works perfectly well as a stand alone novel. Each of the novels in the series take place a year or so after the previous one, so there is no feeling of missing something. But that being said, reading all of them is a delight.
In this one, Bell has been disbarred because of something that she did as a child. Her sister has died, her daughter is an adult and living on her own away from Acker’s Gap. Bell is alone in town except for her friends, and two of them are also her business partners.
Jake Oakes is a former deputy who was injured and now is in a wheelchair. Nick Fogelsong was the former sheriff. The three of them run a detective agency and find missing children and solve murders. In this story, they do both. Along the way, Keller shares each character’s personal story, and we grow to like them all in spite of their faults and failures.
Bell finds a local woman dead at the site of Wellwood, the notorious psychiatric hospital from the turn of the last century, which has been reduced to rubble. Bell takes a personal interest in finding out what happened to Darla Gilley, the murdered woman. Her brother was one of Nick Fogelsong’s best friends and is dying of cancer. His wife, Brenda, is a strange character, and Keller takes her time unfolding Brenda’s true nature.
One of the themes in many of Keller’s novels is the secrets that families keep and this novel is no exception. What lengths will people go to in order to keep secrets hidden? What secrets are worth killing for? How well do we really ever know someone?
When the diary of a young woman who worked at Wellwood is found, more secrets are uncovered about the horrors of the place. Keller emphasizes that no one cared about the poor and indigent people of West Virginia — especially the women. If they were depressed or even just inconvenient to have around, their male relatives — husbands, fathers, brothers — could have them shut away permanently. It’s an eye-opening story and a reminder of how gruesome and terrifying the treatment of mental illness has been in our past, and in some cases, still is.
Readers will enjoy learning more about Acker’s Gap and West Virginia, and those who are fans of the series will gain more insight into some of Bell’s friends, especially her partners, who are sure to be featured in future books. It’s a wonderful series, and Keller’s writing is lovely — virtually poetic at times. And she doesn’t shy away from current issues as she writes about pharmaceutical companies, “Drug dealers on the street were easy to demonize. They were low-life scum and they looked it. But drug dealers who wore nice suits and drove fancy cars — that was harder.”
Mystery lovers shouldn’t miss this series, but it’s also much more than “just” a murder mystery. It’s about a community, a woman, the underprivileged, and how we face the adversities of life.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Minotaur Books, the publisher, for review purposes.