Angels Burning, by Tawni O’Dell*****

angelsburningTawni O’Dell is an experienced writer, but she is new to me. I was attracted to her working class setting and protagonist Dove Carnahan, the fifty year old police chief in a tiny Pennsylvanian coal town. I received this galley free for an honest review thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Threshold Pocket Books, and I liked it so much that now the rest of her work, some of which has been featured in the Oprah Book Club, is on my to-read list. Dispensing hilarity and palpable real life truths in equal measure, O’Dell is a keeper.

The strong characterization and the stirring immediacy of this storyline had me at hello. O’Dell’s genius and deft skill are shown by her capacity to develop her small town characters into flesh, bone, and sinew. We know Dove as if she were in front of us; we know her sister Neely; we even know Neely’s dogs.

In her 27 years in law enforcement, Dove has never had to deal with a murder before, and this one is particularly nasty. Camio Truly was just 17 years old when someone smashed her head in, dropped her down a sink hole and set fire to her body. Naturally, this murder isn’t Carnahan’s job; of course not. She has two deputies, one office worker and a busted vending machine. No, the larger and better funded neighboring cop department will deal with this problem. Yet in such a small town, every problem leads into every other problem, so she’s up to her neck in it in no time anyway.

The victim was one of many children in the Truly family. The Trulys are local rednecks whose days run into one another lulled by a steady dose of television viewing. The baby’s bottle has something brown and fizzy in it. Since the narrative is in the first person, Dove tells us herself:

“I marvel as I always do at this very specific kind of American poverty. The Trulys by most people’s standards would be considered poor, yet they were able to buy everything here that has ended up as trash in their front yard. They have a $3,000 TV and the latest phones, and I can’t imagine what they spend monthly on beer and cigarettes, but they couldn’t afford a laptop for their daughter to help her with her schoolwork or a copy of Psychology for Dummies.”

O’Dell gets some good ones in at the expense of this generally ambition-free family, but she also avoids turning them into a caricature. Eldest son Eddie lives away from the family home now, and when she talks to him about his last visit from Camio, she recognizes Eddie’s own traumatic past, which includes the deaths of two brothers and the horrors of Vietnam.

And in her interrogation of Shawna, the perpetually neglectful mother of the Truly brood, she throws us some surprises, establishing dignity and gravitas for this woman stoically enduring disappointment, heartbreak, and perpetual discouragement.

Interwoven into the murder mystery are two subplots that are more important than they appear. One is that her brother Champ, who’s been gone for twenty years, suddenly surfaces with a son; the other is that the man that spent a long stretch in jail for the murder of Dove and Neely’s mother is out of prison and harassing Dove endlessly, claiming that she sent him to prison knowing that he was not guilty.

Put it all together and it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, it’s pure gold. Janet Evanovich may have to move over and save a stool for a new regular at the Sassy Murder Writers’ Saloon. This title is super smart and the pages turn rapidly, leaving the reader with a sense of loss when it’s over. Whether you buy it for a beach trip or to curl up by the fire, this one’s a must-read, and it comes out January 5, 2016.

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