The body of a murdered woman is found in the woods. Who is the woman and who killed her?
A traditional murder mystery? Nothing is conventional in the hands of Julia Keller.
"The Cold Way Home," the eighth novel in the Belfa Elkins series, is not only set in West Virginia but it deals with the questionable medical practices of a very local state medical facility. In the novel, Wellwood, a psychiatric hospital, is no longer in existence. When it burned to the ground it took some - but not all - of its secrets with it.
Someone who worked at Wellwood saw what was done there - and recorded it in her diary. The medical practice of the day was to use electro-shock therapy and perform lobotomies on patients, usually female, invariably rendering them "instant zombies." In a "Home for Incurables" doctors used a brutal and ineffective "cure." The cold way home refers to the journey to soullessness endured there by these women.
The novel is set in fictional Acker's Gap, West Virginia - fictional, that is, in the same way that Faulkner's geography is fictional. Which is to say it is very real, very familiar. Michael Connelly (author of "The Lincoln Lawyer," "The Wrong Side of Goodbye") calls Bell Elkins "one of the most fully realized characters in fiction today." "The Cold Way Home" is not merely a murder mystery; it is a novel of character. Belfa Elkins - Bell - is further fleshed out in this latest installment. She is no longer a prosecuting attorney; she has been disbarred for a crime she committed as a youth for which her sister Shirley served prison time. Now she is a private investigator working with her colleagues Nick Fogelsong and Jake Oakes. Both Nick and Jake have their own secrets, too. The intertwined subplots give "The Cold Way Home" gravitas as their stories propel the novel forward.
Keller's magnificent prose style is constantly on display. As in Faulkner, the past is never past; the past "was like a freeloading cousin who'd promised to stay only a week - 10 days at most - but never left." Bell's "large purseaspired to be mistaken for leather." How many other authors can write so cleverly? The forensic examiner is described as wearing "her frizzy gray hair pulled back into a single braid that bisected her back like a weary pendulum that had lost the will to swing."
Emily Dickinson described hope as a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. Here is Keller's take: Bell "put the lid on his coffee cup to preserve its heat. And she put the lid on (dark thoughts), too, to preserve something else: the fragile scrap of hope that enabled her to keep fighting."
Keller's novel fights for those women who were robbed of productive lives. Long after the murder mystery is solved, "The Cold Way Home" will keep you thinking about the mysteries of life.
Note: Julia Keller is a graduate of Marshall University (BA) and the Ohio State University (Ph.D.). Besides the Belva Elkins series, her books include "Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel," "Back Home" and "The Dark Intercept."
Leonard J. Deutsch is a retired dean of the Graduate College at Marshall University.