There are precious few angels, burning or otherwise, in Tawni O’Dell’s intense psychological thriller Angels Burning, set in a bleak, backwoods Pennsylvania town where mining, money and good times have pretty much come and gone.
Police Chief Dove Carnahan works in Buchanen, the town where she grew up and has lived for 50 years. Buchanen is the only jurisdiction that’s close to Campbell’s Run, a toxic, long-abandoned mining town where fires still burn belowground decades later, and where the charred body of a recently murdered teenage girl has turned up, stuffed into a gash in the earth’s crust. Carnahan identifies the body as Camio Truly and follows the girl’s trail back to the doorstep of her unruly and eccentric family to search out the motive for her horrific murder.
O’Dell tells her dark tale with assurance and a talent for bringing Carnahan and her offbeat colleagues to life, along with a town full of down-on-their-luck rednecks with one foot outside the law. Carnahan tackles the Truly family head-on, including—though hardly limited to—the formidable matriarch, Miranda Truly; her listless daughter, Shawna, mother of the murdered teen; sullen granddaughter and new mother Jessy; and Jessy’s hyperactive 8-year-old brother, Derk, who’s everywhere all at once, under the table and on the roof.
The chief herself is a woman of many traumas, and her backstory crackles with tension and long-held secrets, kept ever since the murder of her mother many years earlier. Of her mother’s erratic, colorful past, Carnahan notes that “those acquainted with my mom’s past would go on to say that Cissy Carnahan dying on trash day was perfect timing.” Carnahan owns this secretive past along with her equally troubled sister, Neely, who isolates herself with her dogs and is obsessed with her privacy. The plot thickens when their brother, Champ, appears after many years away and out of communication, bringing with him a young son, Mason.
Readers will look hard to find glimmers of sunshine in this smoldering tale, and such moments can be found in intriguing characters like Mason, who’s a bundle of vulnerability and a breath of fresh air, or in Derk’s ADD-fueled antics. And it’s worth it just to stay around and get used to Corporal Nolan Greely of the state police—he’s a book all unto himself, behind the crew cut and mirrored shades.