"The Cold Way Home: a Novel" (Minotaur Books), by Julia Keller
Julia Keller's eighth yarn featuring small-town West Virginia crime fighter Bell Elkins is a heartbreaking blues song of a novel, employing beauty to evoke despair while reminding readers that even in the darkest of days, there might also be light.
"The Cold Way Home" begins with a 16-page prelude that serves as an allegory for the novel to come and is as fine a piece of writing as you will read this year.
An Acker's Gap policeman winds his way through his wreck of a town where people are either struggling to survive or surrendering to "a black wave" of fentanyl-spiked heroin. Inside the grimy Burger Boss restaurant, he finds a pair of EMTs trying to revive a woman who has overdosed on the toilet.
They pull her to her feet and find, to their horror, that she has given birth to a premature baby that is submerged in the bowl. The policeman is as repelled as the reader by the degradation of this moment. But then, after the tiny human is lifted from her porcelain manger, she begins to breathe.
The deputy knows this child's chances for survival are not good, but "a reverence" rises inside him "like a sunrise in the blood."
This policeman turns out to be a bit player in the drama to follow. Instead, the action is driven by Elkins and her friends, former cops Nick Fogelsong and Jake Oakes, who have started a detective agency while trying to work out their substantial personal problems.
The plot gets rolling when Elkins stumbles onto a body near the overgrown ruins of an old mental hospital. Local authorities, short of manpower and money, encourage Elkins and her crew to investigate.
The roots of the case, it turns out, sink deep into both local family histories and the horrors that were once routine in the almost forgotten mental hospital. The murder and the reasons behind it are revealed as ghastly, and, although Elkins and her team arrive at some measure of justice, Acker's Gap remains a sad casualty of 21st-century America.
And yet, in the novel's closing paragraph, Keller again injects a bit of hope. A falling snow murmurs "of clean slates and second chances," but the only people who could hear it are "those who had been deeply wounded and thus, through the hard lessons of their pain, had learned how to listen."
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including "The Dread Line."