Long Black Veil, recorded by Lefty Frizzell in the late 50’s, is my favorite country song.
It includes murder, adultery, a miscarriage of justice, and eternal mourning. What more could you want? Despite the fact that songwriter Danny Dill was inspired by a newspaper story about the murder of a priest in New Jersey, in my heart of hearts I know this song should have been written about a small town in the Shenandoah Valley. This song resonates with me - I don’t care if I’m listening to recordings by Springsteen, the Chieftains and Mick Jagger, Johnny Cash, Dave Matthews, or Lefty himself.
The same feeling applies to novels and mysteries with a strong sense of place, where the location is a character. Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Series is a prime example. Her earlier books (including The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills and If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O) convinced me that my ancestors from Scotland must have passed along the same rivers and hills and sang the same songs. Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap novels and Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott series (starting with The Bootlegger’s Daughter) strike the same chord.
Julia Keller’s A Killing in the Hills portrays a small town in West Virginia as vividly as a segment on 60 Minutes discussing rural poverty, prescription drug abuse, and the deadly popularity of hillbilly heroin. Ms. Keller, however, reminds readers that people are born and raised in small mountain towns, choose to remain there, or even return there after living elsewhere. Being isolated may no longer be a safeguard against the evils of modern life, but her main characters are fighting the good fight and struggling to understand how good people can do bad things. I usually don’t read the blurbs on the back of books, but I totally support the comment by author Karin Slaughter: “Julia Keller is that rare talent who combines gripping suspense, a fabulous sense of place, and nuanced characters you can’t wait to come back to. A must-read.”