High summer in Acker's Gap, West Virginia—but no one's enjoying the rugged natural landscape. Not while a killer stalks the small town and its hard-luck inhabitants. County prosecutor Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong are stymied by a murderer who seems to come and go like smoke on the mountain. At the same time, Bell must deal with the return from prison of her sister, Shirley—who, like Bell, carries the indelible scars of a savage past.
In Summer of the Dead, the third Julia Keller mystery chronicling the journey of Bell Elkins and her return to her Appalachian hometown, we also meet Lindy Crabtree—a coal miner's daughter with dark secrets of her own, secrets that threaten to explode into even more violence.
Acker's Gap is a place of loveliness and brutality, of isolation and fierce attachments—a place where the dead rub shoulders with the living, and demand their due.
After two savage, seemingly senseless murders within weeks, Bell Elkins starts to feel the heat and that's even without the mess of trouble simmering at home with her headstrong, recently paroled big sister, Shirley in Keller's character-driven, plot-compromised third novel starring the steely West Virginia prosecutor (after 2013's Bitter River). As residents of Bell's hardscrabble Appalachian hometown of Acker's Gap shy away from even simple summer pleasures for fear of a serial killer in their midst, she doggedly pursues the scant leads while trying to forge an adult relationship with the sibling whose selfless act decades earlier spared her from their father's abuse. Though the investigation uncovers a sad story behind almost every sagging porch (among them the plight of teen bookworm Lindy Crabtree, who turns the cellar of her crumbling family place into the simulacrum of a mine to comfort her demented and possibly dangerous father, a retired miner), and culminates in a denouement surprising largely because it seems so contrived, the book's prime pleasure lies in joining the complex Bell on the long journey toward making peace with her past.