I admit it. I apparently am a name bigot. Otherwise, why was I so hesitant to dive in to Tawni O’Dell’s new book Angels Burning? I am pretty sure I read her Back Roads (2001), but I had no strong feeling about her other than that her named evoked a memory of a real-life woman named Tawny whose presence in my life was always like fingernails on a blackboard, and around whom I always felt incredibly inferior…so possibly Ms. O’Dell inherited my prejudice. Wow, was I wrong!! I loved this book!!!
The short version is that the protagonist, Dove Carnahan, is a small-city police chief in Buchanan, a small city in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. She is coming up on her 50th birthday, outwardly successful following a rough adolescence that included her mother’s murder and secrets that add to her dark and self-destructive nature. Dove is called to a crime scene, where a young female has been beaten to death, set on fire, and thrown down an abandoned coal mine (which is still on fire, like much of the ruined landscape). She turns out to be Camio, a teenage daughter of the local extended redneck/criminal family named Truly.
A parallel story is that during Dove’s investigation into Camio’s murder is the release from prison of the man who was convicted of murdering Dove’s mother. He shows up, threatening Dove and her sister Neely, and evokes unsettling parallels between the Carnahans and the Trulys.
I love psychological thrillers when they are well done, and the plot of Angels Burning is tightly woven and revealed with excellent pacing. The story deals with both the present (Camio’s murder investigation and the pathetically poor and dysfunctional Truly family) and the past (Dove’s mother’s murder and the dysfunctional Carnahans). On top of all this, Dove’s brother Champ, from whom she has been estranged since he left home decades ago, shows up with an 8-year old son (whom Dove has never heard of, let alone met) and dumps the kid with Dove and leaves town.
O’Dell is masterful in evoking a sense of place…and in this part of the world, it isn’t pretty. Describing the local landscape when she goes to the crime scene when Camio’s body is being recovered, she says “The sweetish smoky reek of charred flesh mixed with the acrid odor of sulfur always present in this poisoned ghost town.” Her response to her surroundings is summed up: “The lush green waves of rolling hills on the blue horizon, and I feel the familiar ache that always comes over me whenever I’m faced with ruined beauty.” As she goes to the Truly family compound as part of her investigation, she finds the “curtains are drawn against the bright sunshine. An overhead lamp has been turned on, but little light can shine through the powdery layer of dead insects accumulated at the bottom of the fixture. The room has a fried food, dirty diapers, damp dishrag odor to it. ” I swear, when I read that, it just creeped me out, it captured the scene so perfectly.
Her descriptive skills also apply to the people of the town of Buchanan. You can easily visualize them from her words: Rudy Mayfield, someone she has known since childhood, “ swallows and stares hard at his impressive beer gut straining against an old undershirt spattered with various colored stains like countries depicted on a great white globe.”
Shawna Truly, mother of Camio, is a beaten-down mess of a woman whose whole life is a mess: “her bulk takes up half the couch but her presence takes up the entire room.” When Shawna is brought to the station for an interview, the extent to which she has totally checked out emotionally is described as “…like a she elephant grandly walking through a group of deadly big cats to get to the water hole, she has a regal disinterest in her surroundings because she knows nothing can touch her.”
Shawna’s mother Miranda is a cruel old bat, and has little humanity remaining, which O’Dell clearly describes: “ Joy, pleasure, optimism left her long ago. Not all at once, like air from a punctured bicycle tire with the nail still embedded in the tread, her compassion atrophy was probably a slow leak.”
A huge amount of plot and characterization centers on Dove and her family, in particular her murdered mother. Dove says she “knew she was bad at mothering, but I was never sure if this was the same thing as being a bad mother.” And, talking about the Truly children, who seem to be treated badly by Shawna and Miranda, Dove says, “I also know what it’s like to have a mother who doesn’t care about you. This isn’t always the same thing as having one who doesn’t love you. Love is a highly subjective concept; everyone has different standards for what qualifies.” Dove’s pain around her parents is summed up by her when she says “By the age of fifteen I had the best kind of parents: ones who were dead and couldn’t hurt me anymore.”
As Dove works on the Camio Truly murder case, we see how she has learned to work on grisly crimes while trying to retain some humanity. She leaves a meeting, acknowledging she is “ left teetering on a precipice of unwelcome memories and the equally unwelcome discovery that time does not heal all wounds. It may have taken the edge and shine off but the blade has remained permanently plunged in the flesh of my soul, a dull, rusty, eternal reminder… I leave the interview room with the intention of stripping off my clothes, kicking off my shoes, getting in my car, and driving naked until I reach the nearest ocean, then jumping in and swimming until I find a deserted island where I can live alone far away from all people and the things they do to each other.”
As Chief of Police, Dove has learned to maintain a shell around herself, stating “My philosophy regarding a problem is fix it, and if you can’t fix it, find a way to live with it that is least destructive to yourself and others. Whatever you do, don’t talk endlessly about it while you do nothing. “
Her interview of Camio’s sister Jessyca reflects her brusque style, as Dove asks the teenage Jessyca about her baby girl, Goldie. Jessyca tells Dove “Goldie was an accident, ” to which Dove asks “You mean you were using birth control but still got pregnant?” Jessyca replies “ I mean I got pregnant ‘cause I wasn’t using birth control,” and Dove’s response is “Then Goldie’s not an accident. She’s a consequence.”
I loved both Dove and her dog-training sister Neely, who has responded to the trauma they endured as teenagers by developing a lifestyle that means her main communication is with canines rather than humans. As it turns out, there is a HUGE revelation about their childhood, and O’Dell deftly handles a combination of emotional scenes and plot twists.
Don’t be a name bigot. Tawni O’Dell is great, and this book is fun, entertaining, and skillfully written. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of Angels Burning in return for my review. Five enthusiastic stars!