Julia Keller tackles heroin in 24-hour crisis

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“Fast Falls the Night” (Minotaur) by Julia Keller

An ongoing theme in Julia Keller’s superior series about Raythune County prosecutor Bell Elkins is how these West Virginia residents maneuver when jobs are scarce but drugs have overrun the area.  Hope, though often in short supply, is the only thing to which they can cling.

Hope seems elusive in “Fast Falls the Night,” Keller’s excellent sixth novel that takes place during 24 hours, mainly in the town of Acker’s Gap.  By the end of the horrific day, 33 people will have overdosed from tainted heroin, three will have died from the drugs and two other deaths are directly related to the heroin that has been laced with an elephant tranquilizer.  The epidemic stretches thin the prosecutor’s office, the police, paramedics and hospital staff as each hour brings more overdoses.

The situation also brings a moral conundrum — how to treat addicts for whom few have sympathy.  “They’ve done it to themselves,” becomes a constant refrain.  But nothing happens in a vacuum as the problem seeps throughout the community.

Keller’s challenge, which she rises to beautifully, is making the reader care and understand why these people turned to drugs, without sanctioning their actions.  “Fast Falls the Night” is less a tale about drug overdoses and more about compassion and complex characters.  Connections run deep in this multi-generational area with its decades of secrets, stymieing the investigation to find the local dealer.

The balance in “Fast Falls the Night” comes from Bell and Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Oakes, both of whom, for different reasons, have chosen to live in the area.  Bell’s sense of justice and desire to make her hometown a better place propels her daily, both professionally and personally.

Bell’s strident personality can be off-putting to her co-workers, but her intentions are pure.  “Fast Falls the Night” finds her making some tough choices that will affect her future.  Jake came to police work almost accidently, but he shares Bell’s quest.  His development as an incisive detective and his personal growth throughout “Fast Falls the Night” is a revelation.

The 24-hour timeframe imbues a sense of urgency to the plot as Keller shows the day’s events through various points of views.  Keller also avoids the pitfalls of the TV drama “24,” in which Jack Bauer raced across Los Angeles in minutes.  Here, a cop really can quickly make it across town.

A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Keller again perfectly captures a community that, despite its struggles, will survive. (AP)