This was a book club selection, and it’s one of the few I can remember where I had advance e-mails from delighted club members saying how much they loved this book. One woman even came in and bought another copy to give to a friend. When I finally got to reading this book – a multiple award nominee this year in the U.S., and last year in the U.K. – I found out how intelligent my book club members really are. I loved it too, and like them, I couldn’t put it down. I was making a drive home and had to pull into a rest stop to finish reading it. The last book that required such a drastic measure was Michael Connelly’s The Poet.
I think it’s safe to say this is the book of the year, and there isn’t always a “book of the year”, a book everyone’s talking about and reading. But the premise and the voice in this book are so original and so captivating that the story will probably stay with you for a long, long time, and you’ll probably want to talk about it.
The author is definitely channeling psychological masters like Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. Putting together this lean, vicious, compelling book is a real act of writerly fortitude, because it’s an exhausting and sometimes terrible sprint. And, like a Rendell or Highsmith book, when you get to the twisty middle, you know things are only going to get far, far worse.
Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to fickle gods. Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Cornelia Read’s voice is one of the most original, vivid and memorable in all of contemporary crime fiction. I think I would be happy to read anything she wrote, in novel form or no, but happily she also writes wonderful novels. While her books are technically a series, I think each of them stand well alone, and each have a different slant which sets them apart from one another.
Here’s some advice: run, don’t walk, to the stack of Julia Keller’s first crime novel, A Killing in the Hills, and stash away a first edition for yourself. I rarely make this prediction but I am predicting Keller’s career will be a long one. This is a wonderful first novel, strongly reminiscent of some of Laura Lippman’s best work – her stand-alone crime novels that, like this book, are about so much more.
A Killing in the Hills is set in the tiny, and fictional, Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, but the assured writing and sense of place make clear that while technically Acker’s Gap is not a real place, the town Keller is describing and writing about most definitely is real. The book kicks off with the kind of random and senseless shooting that we have become all too familiar with recently: three old men are gunned down in the middle of a busy lunch time at a fast food restaurant in Acker’s Gap.
In her first appearance, Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand’s protagonist Cassandra Neary provides this memorable self-portrait:
I caught a glimpse of myself in a dark window: a gaunt Valkyrie holding a spear taller than I was, teeth bared in a drunken grimace and eyes bloodshot from some redneck teenager’s ADD medication.
Neary has many of the qualities more expected in a male noir protagonist. She’s violent, bad tempered, substance abusing, cynical, haunted, corrupt, but yet able to tell the difference between right and wrong at the crucial moment and equally able to act decisively on that knowledge.
Thomas Cook is one of my favorite authors, but when I tell people that their reaction is often who? He’s been nominated for the Edgar seven times in five different categories, won for best novel, and yet, perhaps because he doesn’t write a series, remains criminally underappreciated. To me, fine prose in an essential part of any really excellent book, and Cook is one of the greatest living stylists in any genre, but he also has mastery of the other essential elements like character, setting and a special gift for the unexpected plot twist that seems obvious only after it’s happened.