Set in a Pennsylvania coal town, Tawni O’Dell’s latest novel transports the reader into the closed, ‘company town’ atmosphere of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Our protagonist Sheridan Doyle escaped the confines of his upbringing and went to college. Now a renowned forensic psychologist in Philadelphia, his only tie to his home town is his elderly grandfather Tommy. When he learns that Tommy has taken ill, he returns to Lost Creek to care for him.
Lost Creek has not been good to Sheridan. Tragic memories abound. As a result, Sheridan is plagued with nightmares and suffers from panic attacks. When his baby sister Molly was just a week old his mother was accused of killing her and burying her in the backyard. She always denied it, but with a history of mental illness, she was not believed. After she was imprisoned Sheridan was left with his physically abusive, drunken father. When things got bad at home he would escape to his grandfather’s house for some safety and comfort. Another man in Sheridan’s life is Rafe. A surrogate father figure, Rafe was a police officer in Sheridan’s youth. Now he is the town’s only detective.
The town itself has a tragic history. A century ago some Irish immigrant miners (known as as the Nellie O’Neills) protested their despicable working conditions. In their angry protest they killed two people. To ‘teach them a lesson’ they were all hanged at a public gallows. The gallows still stands as a reminder and as a macabre tourist attraction. The town’s history was interesting, but I felt it was somewhat overplayed in the novel.
The story is told in two voices. That of Sheridan, whose blue-collar roots tie him to the town ; and that of Scarlet, the daughter of the wealthy and powerful mine owner. As the novel begins, shortly after Sheridan’s arrival back in Lost Creek, a body is found near the gallows. The superstitious townsfolk believe it may be the work of the ghostly Nellie O’Neills, but the more pragmatic Rafe is certain that there is a human out there with a motive.
Then, Rafe and Sheridan have another murder to solve. A middle-aged woman is found dead in her home. She is a victim of the traditional “death by blunt object”. Little evidence leaves them temporarily stymied.
Meanwhile, the reader comes to realize that Scarlet is a psychopath. Throughout her life she has murdered anyone who upsets her. Her latest victim is the cousin of her old Nanny…
This is the first novel I have read by the esteemed author, Tawni O’Dell and I enjoyed her writing for the most part. The setting was an integral part of the story and she portrayed it well. Her constant descriptions of what the protagonists were wearing got on my nerves more than a bit. I like nice clothes as much as the next person, but thought the name-dropping couture unnecessary. I think I know why she incorporated these descriptions in the narrative, but I still feel the novel would have been better off without them.
The title is very clever. The obvious of course, is that Sheridan is now an outsider and no longer considered to be “One of Us” by the townspeople. I can’t go into other explanations however without incorporating some spoilers.
Simon & Schuster have provided an online Reading Group Guide for this novel.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing me the opportunity to read this novel.