Book review

'One of Us': Tawni O'Dell's tale of high fashion and old injustices in Pennsylvania coal country

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Tawni O’Dell is known for her Pennsylvania coal country novels “Back Roads” and “Coal Run.” Her new book, “One of Us,” takes place in the small coal mining town of Lost Creek.

By Tawni O’Dell
Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster ($25).

The town has a macabre history. A hundred years ago, a group of miners kicked up a fuss about the horrid conditions they were enduring. Two of them committed murders in their fury. But all of them paid for it. They were publicly hanged. They were Irish immigrants known as the Nellie O’Neills.

Protests soon quieted down because the mill owner had sent a warning — 10 young men hanging there, not easy to forget. The gallows remained in town, a reminder of the history, a symbol of all sorts of things. They changed hands and changed hands once again. Take them down or leave them up? Which was the correct message?

In “One of Us,” Danny Doyle, now a successful forensic psychologist in Philadelphia, comes back to see to his 96-year-old grandfather, Tommy. Danny’s childhood was as bad as they come, but he got out and made a success of himself, not only earning law and psychology degrees, but also writing books about criminals. He is not comfortable in his hometown. For one thing, he’s a dandy, a fashion plate, and he doesn’t look like any of the men there. He cares about clothes. A lot.

Danny’s history includes a father who beat him regularly and a mother who went to prison for murdering her new baby girl. But there were good people in his life: grandfather Tommy and a policeman named Rafe, who kept appearing as a surrogate father figure.

The townspeople are superstitious. For a long time they have believed the Nellie O’Neills appear as ghosts in the town. When Danny arrives, a man has been found dead near the gallows and the town is abuzz with theories that the ghosts had something to do with it. This puzzle launches the novel, but it isn’t what the novel is about. It’s about the uncovering of long-held secrets that have little to do with the corpse at the gallows.

The novel is told in alternating points of view by two first-person narrators. Danny is one of them. The other is Scarlett, the privileged daughter of the millionaire mine owner. She never hung around, either. She has residences in Paris and in New York. She dresses well, so well that she’s noticeable for it immediately.

This novel is a hybrid. It has whiffs of “cozy mysteries,” the form that features quaint characters in a tight setting and in which the victims of murder are people nobody really mourns.

It has some kinship to thrillers, but the calendar and the clock are more leisurely than those clocks and calendars that thrillers tend to push. It has bits of procedural but the police sort of let things ride. “One of Us” is more a rural or small-town gothic novel. 

I did not always believe the secrets, the motives, the big engines of the novel, but I recognize that they are the feature many others will like best. I did believe in and become engaged by the more ordinary things: how Danny conducts his work life in Philadelphia, the condition of his grandfather’s house, the history of the mine store where the miners had to buy their overpriced goods and always ended up in debt, the darkness and depth of the mines, the depression of the miners and the continued hardscrabble living of the people of the town.

And certain characters will linger — especially the people Danny is able to love. Old Tommy is one of the most steadfast and loving drunks to hit the page. His idea of lunch is a bag of Wise potato chips and a bottle of Jameson. His heart is right.

And so is Rafe’s. An odd man, hooked on candy, constantly clacking it in his teeth, Rafe, the town’s lone detective, is running from four failed marriages; he’s an awkward man, Tommy thinks: “rumpled gray pants, a pair of Caterpillar boots with bright yellow laces, a strobing red and blue striped tie, and an olive green corduroy blazer all topped off with a camouflage hunting jacket. Rafe’s first words to Tommy are: “What the hell are you wearing?”

Danny is wearing “Sugoi RSR running tights, a North Face Apex ClimateBlock zip jacket, neon-orange reflective Saucony gloves, and a waterproof Asics beanie.”

No, he doesn’t fit, and he carries a lot of misery underneath the expensive clothing, having relegated deep feelings to nightmares. That’s how things are in Lost Creek. The town and its residents are the winning feature of Ms. O’Dell’s talent. She writes beautifully about those lost people.

Kathleen George, a writer living on the North Side, is the author of seven Detective Richard Christie crime novels. Her most recent work is “The Johnstown Girls.” She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

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