Angels Burning by Tawni O’Dell is several stories in one, told through the eyes of a 50 year-old small town Chief of Police, Dove Carnahan. The setting is a small town in Pennsylvania.
4 out of 10 stars. I have mixed feelings about this novel. I thought it was a simple murder mystery and discovered it’s not. One of the murders surrounds a hillbilly clan involved in incest, drugs, and other crimes. The other involves a young mother who married for money and left her children in the hands of a pedophile, knowing him for what he was. Neither were my cup of tea and the first two chapters were written very sloppily, making them hard to read, but I did manage to finish reading the novel. Was it worth the five hours I put in? No, not at all. A well-written novel is easy to read. You don’t have to go back over pages of writing to decipher what the author was trying to say. Too many metaphors, brand names, place names, and poorly written prose make this title not really worth reading.
First, let’s talk about the writing. The entire novel is told in first person through the point of view of a fifty year-old woman who is the town’s Police Chief. She is single, has never had a child, and often has sex with the state trooper in charge of the state’s crime unit, Nolan Greely. Nolan is married with three daughters and over sixty. Neither of these two are particularly likable. It’s important in any fiction to have at least one likable protagonist. In this novel that’s missing. Dove has only ever committed one act of selflessness and she did that at age 15 which we discover at the very end.
Normally, in written fiction, the author starts a new paragraph when a different person is speaking, thinking, or doing anything of consequence. Angels Burning is written with several paragraphs about the same person, often an entire page of paragraphs that should’ve been one paragraph. That makes it difficult to know who’s speaking or thinking. You assume the person has changed, but it hasn’t.
Nolan finally stands back up.
“One of us needs to get down there to help boister her up,” he says. “We can tie a rope around whoever goes. I’ve got two troopers with me, but they’re big guys.”
He sizes up Blonski, who has a stocky, no-neck weight lifter’s build, then Singer, who’s tall and lanky, then me.
“Do you weigh more than him?” he asks me.
This is sloppy writing, four paragraphs that should’ve been one. In fact, the author has to add an attribution to the dialogue so we know who’s speaking “he says” and “he asks me” because it makes no sense that the same person is speaking and has been speaking for four paragraphs. This goes on throughout the novel, over and over again.
The next issue with the writing is the purple prose. Purple prose is using an overabundance of adjectives and adverbs, metaphors and similes, instead of simply telling the story. The author, Tawni O’Dell, goes off on a thought or tangent and wanders for paragraphs, then comes back to the original story. Some of these asides will have meaning later, but many will not. The tediousness of constantly being left hanging in the middle of a thought to go off on a tangent is annoying and makes for a difficult read. The entire first chapter focuses way too long and for too many pages on Dove’s inappropriate dress on the day she finds Camio’s body. The entire second chapter focuses on her relationship with her sister Neely. And on it goes. Bored already.
Second, let’s talk about the issues with the actual storylines. The first storyline is about a teenage girl who is found murdered and stuffed into the cracked earth of a local sinkhole, her body partially burned. She turns out to be Camio Truly, middle child of Clark and Shawna Truly, a family of dangerous redneck hillbillies led by their matriarch, Clark’s mother Miranda. From the very beginning, Dove finds it odd that only part of Camio’s body is burned badly, especially her hands. She had a manicure the afternoon of the day she was murdered. She also supposedly sent texts to her boyfriend Zane shortly before her murder. Zane is a sweet kid from the right side of the tracks, son of a CPA and a doting mother who love him very much. He is truly shocked when he discovers Camio is dead and murdered. He’s also completely innocent. The person who sent him the texts was not Camio. It was her killer trying to frame Zane. The Trulys convince Camio’s younger brother Tug that Zane was the killer and that sends Tug into a fit of rage with a shotgun. He breaks into Zane’s home and shoots him. Fortunately, Zane lives, but that gives you an idea of the Truly family’s way of manipulating their children.
Eventually, Dove learns that the oldest three children were not Shawna’s children. They were Clark’s children by his cousin Layla. After Layla died in a car accident, the children went to live with their grandmother Adelaide, Miranda’s sister. But Clark demanded they be given to him and so eventually Adelaide gave them up. He married Shawna without telling her he had three children already and when she tried to leave, Miranda and Clark slit her cat’s throat as a warning to her. So she stayed. To keep Adelaide quiet, Miranda poisoned her children against Adelaide until her oldest, Eddie, tried killing her. Then Adelaide moved away.
Dove goes on to learn that Camio had a darker side, an evil side in which she manipulated people. She was studying psychology and talked her sister into getting pregnant so she’d have a baby. It was mean and cruel, but her sister Jessy was clueless. She also had a book in which she was writing down all of her family’s darkest secrets. When Camio planned on going to see their Great Aunt Adelaide to talk to her, Jessy decided she’d go with her. She couldn’t get a babysitter for her daughter Goldie, so she brought her along. Ten years ago, when their father Clark almost died in an ATV accident, he told Jessy who her real mother was. So Jessy figured she would have Adelaide help her tell Camio now that she was 18. Only Camio doesn’t take it well and shoves Adelaide into the stove. Addy hits her head and crumbles to the floor where she lay dying. Camio doesn’t care. Jessy, who loved her grandmother Adelaide, and sees all the blood sprayed onto her daughter Goldie, is infuriated at Camio’s callousness. She grabs the first thing she finds, a cast iron skillet, and clubs Camio over the head with it several times. In a panic, she calls Miranda and Miranda calls her son Eddie. Miranda and Jessy clean up Adelaide’s house while Eddie disposes of the two bodies. Miranda takes Camio’s phone home and from her bedroom it is stolen by Camio’s little brother who ends up giving it to Dove’s nephew who gives it to Dove. That’s how they crack the case.
The way the author depicts the Truly family is heartbreaking. There are all too many families exactly like this. But she is inconsistent in their treatment. Are they dangerous? Or not? One moment they are. The next they aren’t. Clark is more of a caricature than a real person. At times, so is Miranda. Their names are not even redneck names but something you’d find in a southern town.
The second storyline is the murder of Dove’s mother thirty-five years ago when she was 15. The court convicted her lover, an ex-felon named Lucky, and he was recently released from prison. He is taunting Dove, her sister Neely, and her grandmother. At the same time she’s investigating Camio’s murder, we get all the backstory on her mother Cissy’s murder. Cissy was a whore. She’d sleep with any man until she found one who would give her money. That’s how she paid the rent, a never-ending string of sugar daddies. Until finally she married rich Gilbert Rankin. Dove raised herself and her younger siblings. She made all the meals of whatever was available in the house. She changed their diapers. She got them dressed. Her mother didn’t lift a finger to care for her children or her house.
When Dove was 15 she came home early from school and found Gil sexually molesting her younger brother Champ who was only 8. Gil’s ritual was to take Champ to the bakery, buy him a cupcake, and take him home. He’d go to Champ’s bedroom, light a candle on the cupcake, and have sex with the child, then let him blow out the candle and eat the cupcake. This little ritual destroyed Champ’s life. The afternoon that Dove caught Gil doing this, she immediately told Champ to come to her. Gil ran back to his workplace and immediately ordered his staff to stay late and perform some mundane tasks, giving himself an alibi so if Dove called the police he would lie. But Dove didn’t call the police. She called her grandmother and told her to pick up Champ, that they had a special celebration for her mother. Then she and Neely waited until her mother Cissy was in the bathtub and was forced to listen to them. She told her what Gil was doing to Champ. Cissy told her she knew about it. He’d been doing it for years. It was no big deal as long as he kept the money coming. In her head, Dove had made excuses for her mother’s bad behavior, but she couldn’t excuse this. She grabbed her brother’s baseball bat, and bashed in her mother’s head. Neely convinced her to make up a story about Lucky so she wouldn’t go to jail. Lucky had done enough bad stuff in his life, including beating Neely, that they felt he deserved it.
When Champ turned 18, he left and never returned. Every year they’d get a cryptic text message from an unknown number saying he was fine. They’d text back but he’d never reply. But during the investigation Champ suddenly shows up with a 9 year old son named Mason. He doesn’t go straight to Dove’s. He goes to Neely’s place in the woods where she trains German Shepherds for the cops and search and rescue. Dove comes to talk to Neely, finds Champ and Mason, and they stay with her at her house. That night Mason tells Dove his mother is dead, that she was an IV drug user and died of AIDS. It’s assumed that Mason has HIV. In the morning, Mason wakes up Dove and tells her his father has gone. He didn’t even stay an entire 24 hours.
By the end of the novel, Nolan has discovered Champ’s abandoned car and his body. He killed himself. Before he did this, he sent Dove a letter with a bunch of melted candles inside and told her about the little ritual Gil performed each time he molested him. The sight of cupcakes, candles, or anything similar sent him into fits of PTSD. He just couldn’t take it anymore.
Two such disturbing storylines is a lot to handle in one novel. It’s a lot for an author to handle deftly. Tawni O’Dell doesn’t handle it all that well. She tries to draw parallels between Dove’s life and Camio’s life, but they really aren’t that similar. When she reveals that Jessy is the murderer, she tries to draw parallels between Dove and Jessy, but they aren’t all that similar either. Dove is a rare bird. The backstory of the murder Dove committed, the murder of her mother, is almost told as an afterthought, although all the other details of her childhood are brought in early on. It was inconsistent. Sometimes an author will write a storyline, not feel it’s good enough, and then go in afterward to add other subplots. That’s how this novel feels and reads, like a story that wasn’t interesting enough on its own, so the author went in afterward and added random grossness. Incest, murder, child rape, animal killing, and anything else that will sell the book. The problem is, it ruins the story. Since it’s fiction and the author is making it up, I would’ve much rather had Dove kill her brother’s molester Gil and frame her worthless mother for it. Now that would’ve been a great plot.
4 out of 10 stars. Honestly,I’d rather have all those hours wasted reading this novel back. It wasn’t worth it.