I have a real respect for writers who pull off the feat of condensing a book into the space of a single day. One of my favorite mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), takes place in the space of a single night, and while Ms. Keller is far removed from Ms. Marsh in time, theme, setting, and protagonist, they share a knack all good storytellers have. I think it’s a matter of pacing, the right amount of being invested in the characters, and some sort of indefinable magic. Marsh’s stories are lighter and more optimistic than Keller’s, who sets hers in a far more brutal time and place.
Julia Keller has quickly proven to be one of the brightest lights in the present mystery universe, crafting novels where character, plot, sense of place and a genuine human empathy and deep understanding combine seemingly effortlessly. This is another bravura effort by Ms. Keller, whose novels featuring prosecutor Belfa Elkins are set in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. As always Belfa is working flat out, as she’s nursing a broken heart from a self imposed “break” from her boyfriend and trying to adjust to her daughter living in far away Washington DC.
Allison Leotta’s first novel featuring prosecuting attorney Anna Curtis is a hard- to-stop-reading type thriller, with an interesting central character and a tight plot. Leotta’s Anna has a background including domestic violence – her father beating her mother – and she’s become an attorney for that very reason: to help people like her mother. As the book opens she is on “papering room” duty – processing papers as cases come in, and one of them involves a bleeding young woman who has been beaten by her boyfriend.
Julia Keller is quite simply a spectacular writer. Her Bell Elkins series, set in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, has been deepening and improving with each installment. In this novel, Bell’s sister Shirley has returned from a long stint in prison, and the two are uncomfortably adjusting to living together. Bell is also dealing with a number of murders county wide, some of which seem related, some of which don’t. The atmosphere hanging over Acker’s Gap, like the summer heat, is oppressive and stifling.
Nancy Allen refers to her first novel as “hillbilly noir” but I’d call it “legal noir,” as it’s a harrowing, inside look at the legal system and its many faults. It’s also a harrowing look at life in a small town in the Ozarks: Barton, Missouri. Allen’s main character is a prosecutor named Elsie who apparently has the world’s most horrible boss and she’s working on the world’s most horrible case.
I think folks who work sex crimes are probably vastly underpaid for the heartbreaking and soul-sucking work they do – unless they are each paid a million bucks a year, they’re working for us for free. Despite Elsie’s flaws and blind spots she’s still fighting to do what’s right because that’s the way she works. Elsie has a special soft spot for child victims, and the case she’s assigned in this novel is a doozy.
While there are many, many legal thrillers out there, there are few of them that I personally enjoy. I am a big fan of David Ellis, as well as a sometime fan of Scott Turow, Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline, and now I can add to that short list Adam Mitzner. This is apparently his second novel, though, like Ellis, he doesn’t write a series. Like many other writers of legal thrillers, he is also an attorney. The legal backdrop, to this non-attorney, seems very authentic.
Taking a plausibly ripped from the headlines storyline, the novel centers on murder charges against a rapper whose stage name is Legally Dead. His back story is that he was shot four times and left for dead, thus the name. L.D. (as he’s called by his friends) is in prison for clubbing his girlfriend, a famous singer (think Beyonce or Rihanna type famous) named Roxanne. The thing that seems to clinch his guilt is the fact that one of his songs – now getting constant airplay – discusses killing a singer with a baseball bat. As a final nail in his coffin, it was written before Roxanne’s murder.