From the New York Times bestselling author of the Oprah Book Club pick Back Roads comes this fast-paced literary thriller about a small town police chief who’s forced to dig into her own shadowy past as she investigates the murder of a teenage girl.
On the surface, Chief Dove Carnahan is a true trailblazer who would do anything to protect the rural Pennsylvanian countryside where she has lived all fifty of her years. Traditional and proud of her blue-collar sensibilities, Dove is loved by her community. But beneath her badge lies a dark and self-destructive streak, fed by a secret she has kept since she was sixteen.
When a girl is beaten to death, her body tossed down a fiery sinkhole in an abandoned coal town, Dove is faced with solving the worst crime of her law enforcement career. She identifies the girl as a daughter of the Truly family, a notoriously irascible dynasty of rednecks and petty criminals.
During her investigation, the man convicted of killing Dove’s mother years earlier is released from prison. Still proclaiming his innocence, he approaches Dove with a startling accusation and a chilling threat that forces her to face the parallels between her own family’s trauma and that of the Trulys.
With countless accolades to her credit, author Tawni O’Dell writes with the “fearless insights” (The New York Times Book Review) she brought to the page in Back Roads and One of Us. In this new, masterfully told psychological thriller, the past and present collide to reveal the extent some will go to escape their fate, and in turn, the crimes committed to push them back to where they began.
Angels Burning chapter one THE LAST TIME I was this close to Rudy Mayfield he was leaning across the seat of his dad’s truck trying to grope my recently ripened breasts.
I close my eyes, and for a moment I smell a teenage boy’s sweaty, horny desperation barely masked by Dial soap instead of the sweetish smoky reek of charred flesh mixed with the acrid odor of sulfur always present in this poisoned ghost town.
“Who does something like that?” Rudy asks for the tenth time in the past minute.
It’s become his mantra, a numbing chant to help him cope with the impossibility of what he encountered this morning on his daily trek down this deserted road.
His dog, Buck, a shaggy, white sheepdog mix, raises his head from where he lays at Rudy’s feet and gives him a sympathetic look.
“You’re absolutely sure you didn’t see anyone?” I ask again.
We both glance around us at the buckled driveways leading to the crumbled foundations of a dozen missing houses, and the gnarled leafless trees clawing their way out of the softly simmering earth like giant hands of the undead. The bright orange rust coating of a child’s toppled bicycle fender is the only speck of color anywhere in the desolate landscape.
“My grandpa’s the only one who stayed at the Run who’s still alive. Aside from me checking on him, no one comes here. You know that.”
“Well, obviously someone came here,” I point out. “That girl didn’t show up on her own and light herself on fire.”
Rudy’s face turns the same shade of gray as the faded blacktop beneath his feet. He swallows and stares hard at his impressive beer gut straining against an old undershirt spattered with various colored stains like countries depicted on a great white globe.
“We had a few good times back in school,” I say to him in as light a tone as I can manage under the circumstances.
The distraction works and he gives me a lopsided smile, the same one he used to give me in health class whenever our teacher said something obvious or useless, which was most of the time. He still has the same pretty green eyes half hidden in the shadow cast by the brim of his ball cap; the years haven’t dulled them.
“Yeah,” he says. “I never understood why we didn’t go out. I liked you.”
“Maybe you should’ve told me that.”
“I thought us doing it in my dad’s truck told you that.”
“That just told me you liked doing it in your dad’s truck.”
I still remember his surprise when I didn’t stop him. He probably thought it was my first time, and it should have been; I was barely fifteen and too young to be fooling around, but my mother’s robust sex life had aroused my curiosity at an early age. It had the opposite effect on my sister, Neely, who felt she knew everything she needed to know about the act from the many times we couldn’t avoid hearing it and the few times we peeked. She never seemed to have a desire to explore it on her own, but I wrongly believed my mom did it because she enjoyed it, and I wanted to know what made it so great that she’d prefer rolling around with naked, grunting men instead of playing with her kids or feeding them.
I hear a car approaching. Buck raises his head.
The road through Campbell’s Run has been closed for as long as I’ve been alive and is so shattered by potholes and overgrown with weeds, it’s impossible to see from a distance. We left the gate open for the coroner, but it’s a state police cruiser and two unmarked cars that arrive first.
“I have to get back to work,” I tell Rudy as I bend down to give Buck a scratch behind his ears. “But don’t go anywhere. We might have some more questions for you.”
Corporal Nolan Greely comes walking toward me. He looks like the kind of big, solid, humorless trooper that makes a motorist’s heart sink when he sees him in his side-view mirror. He’s actually a detective in the state police Criminal Investigations Division and no longer wears a uniform but he doesn’t need to. From his iron gray crew cut and the slow, purposeful pace of his steps, there’s no denying he’s a cop.
He stops in front of me and looks me up and down with a face set in stone and a pair of mirrored sunglasses hiding his eyes.
“Hello, Chief,” he greets me. “You on your way to have tea with the queen?”
I’m in an iris blue skirt and blazer and a new pair of taupe patent-leather pumps I just bought at Kohl’s with a 30 percent–off coupon. The blouse I’m wearing is a bright floral print in honor of the sunny summer day.
“I’m supposed to be at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the VFW.”
His expression doesn’t alter. I can’t tell if he admires, pities, or envies me.
“I have to admit I was surprised you called me right away,” he tells me. “There was a time when we would’ve had to pry this case away from you.”
“I’ve decided not to waste my time and energy fighting the inevitable,” I reply.
“You mean me specifically?” he asks. “Or the entire state police force?”
I give him a slight smile.
“You, Nolan,” I joke. “If you were a superhero, that would be your name: the Inevitable. And your superpower would be always showing up, even when you’re not wanted or needed.”
“I’m always needed,” he says without smiling.
“Well, I’m not reluctant to ask for your help this time,” I explain. “I have a good bunch of guys working for me, but none of them are prepared to deal with this.”
“Worst I’ve seen. I think she’s a teenager.”
I reach down and slip off my shoes.
“I can’t walk back there in heels,” I explain, “and I don’t have a pair of practical shoes with me.”
Again, I can’t tell if Nolan admires, pities, or envies me.
We start walking toward the site. Nolan motions at the two crime scene techs that arrived with him. They head toward the body in their duty uniforms of cargo pants and polo shirts with the state police badge embroidered over their hearts carrying their cameras and evidence kits. I motion at Colby Singer and Brock Blonski, the two officers on the scene with me. After initially examining the body and waiting as they stumbled away and threw up, I sent them off to look for bloodstains, footprints, or any other kind of evidence.
Blonski and Singer are rookies to police work and life in general. They’re in their early twenties and both still live at home, although Blonski recently made the bold move to an apartment above his mom’s garage. I hired them about a year ago. The only dead body Singer’s ever seen prior to this girl was his grandmother who was dressed in her Sunday best lying peacefully in her white-satin-lined casket. Blonski was first on the scene at a traffic fatality a few months ago. It wasn’t pretty, but it was nothing like this.
“Have you ever been here before?” I ask Nolan.
“Once on a dare when I was a kid.”
We stop next to a snarl of fallen barbed wire.
“You can’t get over that in your bare feet,” he says to me.
“I did it before.”
Without saying another word, he grabs me around the waist and swings me in the air over the wire.
“That was humiliating,” I comment once I’m on the ground again.
“I would’ve done the same for a man,” Nolan assures me, “only I rarely run across one performing his duties without shoes.”
I ignore his dig. I’ve been in a male-dominated profession for my entire adult life. I’ve experienced every kind of alienation, sabotage, and harassment the Y chromosome has to offer. Most of it isn’t sincere; it’s simply expected. I save my disgust for the true misogynists.
The mine fire that destroyed the town of Campbell’s Run began several miles belowground more than fifty years ago before finally making its presence known on the surface ten years later when a sinkhole opened up in a backyard, releasing a cloud of steam rife with the rotten-egg stench of sulfur. The hole turned out to be three hundred feet deep and the temperature inside it turned out to be almost twice that number. Soon afterward, a little girl’s rabbit hutch was swallowed up, then a birdbath. One morning the handlebars of a prized Harley were found poking out of a ten-foot-long ragged slash in the owner’s driveway.
All of the town’s residents were relocated except for a few holdouts like Rudy’s grandfather, who refused to go and somehow managed to remain living here while all around him his neighbors’ empty houses were torn down, roads were barricaded, and warning signs went up.
The only other building left standing was the white clapboard church. The government didn’t have the nerve to tear it down. From where I’m standing now, it’s hidden around a bend in a road and I can glimpse only the weathered gray cross at the top of its spire, but I can picture the rest of it clearly: a simple forgotten sanctuary, the once bright red paint on the front doors almost completely worn away except for a few stubborn strips.
I was out here a dozen years ago when Rudy’s grandfather called to tell us someone had stolen the church’s stained glass windows. I worked that case hard while everyone around me considered it a waste of time. I was more successful than I imagined I’d be. I discovered the thieves were professional antique scavengers working out of New York, but I was never able to come close to an arrest or track down the property. Here those windows were miraculous bursts of color and faith in the midst of bleakness. Now they’re in the summer homes of the filthy rich and go underappreciated. I feel personally violated every time I think about it.
I step gingerly over the scorched ground, fully aware of the dangers beneath my feet, while Nolan stomps heavily behind me, daring it to give way.
Where the fire burns hottest, more than a dozen smoldering gashes have opened up. Dead trees have broken loose from the weakened soil and fallen over. Their exposed roots remind me of the tangled legs of dried-out spiders that Neely and I used to find in our attic.
In one of these fiery holes in the ground, someone has stuffed a dead girl.
Nolan and I stare down at her.
The top portion of her body has been badly burned. Her eyes are open and staring in surprise out of a face that looks as if it’s been slathered in barbecue sauce and overbaked until it’s begun to crack and flake. Most of her hair is gone, and the damage to her skull is obvious. I highly doubt she survived those blows. Hopefully they were inflicted before she was lit on fire.
“We’ve searched the area and the road. There’s no sign of blood from those head wounds. She must have been killed somewhere else and brought here,” I tell him, needing to fill the silence. “It’s been dry lately, so unfortunately, no footprints, no tire tracks.”
Nolan kneels down to get a closer look.
“I think whoever put her here thought she’d burn up and disappear,” I go on, “and when she didn’t catch on fire, he doused her in some kind of accelerant. Then there’s this.”
I gesture at a comforter streaked in bloodstains and black burn marks we found in a bank of weeds.
“Chantilly pattern in corals and oranges with a turquoise medallion overlay. I’m pretty sure that’s from the Jessica Simpson Sherbet Lace collection. You can find it at Bed, Bath and Beyond.”
Nolan looks up at me with his unreadable reflective eyes.
“I was shopping for some new bedding recently,” I explain. “I didn’t get that,” I further justify myself. “It doesn’t look like she was allowed to burn long. Maybe someone tried to put out the fire with the blanket.”
“Could be the killer felt some remorse, or could be someone was with him who couldn’t stand to watch,” Nolan contributes. “How’d Mayfield find her?”
He doesn’t say anything else. My officers and I stand by while he continues to stare intently at the dead girl from behind the black depths of his glasses.
Even eerier than the landscape is the absence of any noise. It’s a perfect June day and not a single bird is chirping, not a fly is buzzing, dogs aren’t barking and children aren’t calling out to each other. No one is mowing a yard or playing a radio or wielding a power tool.
“How do you want to get her out of there?” I ask Nolan.
She’s only a few feet down, but there’s no way of knowing how fragile the earth is around her and how deep the chasm might be beneath her. There’s also no way to know the extent of her burns and the resulting condition of her body. If we try to pull her out, she might come apart.
Nolan finally stands back up.
“One of us needs to get down there to help hoist 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.
“No,” I reply sharply.
“You sure? He’s skinny as a stick.”
“He’s six-two and a man. I weigh the least. I’ll do it.”
“You’re wearing a skirt, Chief,” Singer ventures hesitantly. “And you don’t have any shoes.”
“Yeah,” Blonski chimes in. “Shouldn’t we wait for someone with the proper clothes and equipment who knows what they’re doing?”
“Who knows what they’re doing?” I repeat in a tone that puts an end to any further argument.
I take off my jacket and slip a rope under my arms while the men hold the other end. I’m not worried for my safety, but I am worried about my blouse. I hate the fact that I’ve been caught off guard unprepared to do my job, but in all fairness to me, this is not my job anymore. I have an office now with a comfortable chair and a Keurig: I’m a coordinator, a schedule maker, a form filer, a public relations maven, a handshaking figurehead. I’m the first female police chief in the county. I cling to this knowledge in an effort to maintain some dignity as I descend into a muddy hole to retrieve a corpse.
I try not to think about the girl or to look at her until I absolutely have to. The hole is hot and steamy, and I also try not to think about the earth around me falling away, exposing the leaping flames of hell a mile beneath my dangling feet.
I wedge myself against one side and reach out to grab the body around its midsection. It looks as if the fire didn’t spread below her hips.
The sight of her young bare legs sticking out from a pair of cutoff shorts makes my throat tighten. Miraculously one of her flip-flops is still on one of her feet. Her toenails are painted neon pink, and an anklet made of sparkly hearts glimmers in the black dirt.
I gently pull her toward me, ignoring the sound, smell, and feel of seared flesh and bones, and try to imagine the girl she once was before her heart stopped beating and her soul fled. Did she like school? Did she have a lot of friends? What did she want to be when she grew up? Did she ever get to do it in a pickup truck?
None of us speak once we have her laid out on the ground. We stand around her in a protective circle and silently share our individual grief. Tears are acceptable in even the most hardened police officers in situations like this. They’re all thinking of sisters or daughters. I’m the only one who sees myself.
I’m the first to look up and away from the dead girl and this dead town to the lush green waves of rolling hills on the blue horizon, and I feel the familiar ache that always comes over me whenever I’m faced with ruined beauty.
One by one, the men turn away, too, consumed for a final moment by their private tortured thoughts before returning to the practiced numbness that enables them to do their job but unfortunately can’t shield them from their dreams.
Our sleep will be haunted tonight by those legs that even in death look like they could get up and run away from here.
This reading group guide for Angels Burning includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Angels Burning tells the story of a small town that has suffered the tragic and gruesome murder of a teenage girl. Local Police Chief Dove Carnahan has been tasked with finding the girl's murderer but must navigate through a slew of defensive and hostile relatives and friends in order to determine the truth. In the process of this investigation, dark secrets of a similar murder in the town years earlier are unearthed and the trauma from her personal life competes for Dove’s attention. Throughout the investigation, Dove learns that under everyone's tough exterior and behind all of the rumors that the locals spread, no one is who they appear to be--including those closest to her and even herself.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the title of the book Angels Burning. How does the title relate to Campbell Run’s hardships with the collapsed mine and its "ability to swallow up lives"? What is the physical and economic impact on the town’s inhabitants?
2. Dove calls Campbell's Run a "poisoned ghost town." However she and many others have chosen to remain near it. Discuss Dove’s motivations for remaining in the town that has caused her so much pain. Discuss how your perception of her character and motivations changed after learning about her past. Was she really "on the side of the angels when it was all over?"
3. Discuss Dove’s motivations for becoming a police officer. In what ways did she grow up to protect others from the horrific things that happened to her, Champ, and Neely as children? In what ways is she trying to cope with the murder of her mother and the cover up?
4. Lucky, the man convicted of murdering Dove's mother, has been released from prison after 35 years. How has his release affected Dove? How does she react to him finding her? What is her perception of him and the past that they share?
5. How does Lucky’s return affect Dove’s investigation of Camio’s murder? Dove observes that "One of the worst aspects of growing older is the lengthening of hindsight. As it stretches, it becomes thinner and more transparent and we see things more clearly." How does Dove feel about her actions in her mother's death at the end of the novel?
6. Discuss how your interpretation of Dove’s investigative tactics changes after learning about her violent past. Has her personal history informed how she approached this murder investigation? Why or why not.
7. Dove observes she gets "these flashes of irrational passion where [she's] willing to risk everything [she's] worked for in order to accomplish one thing [she] can't control." Where do you see instances of this in the novel? Where does she lose her objectivity when reflecting upon Camio's murder and on her personal life?
8. Discuss how your impressions of some of the following characters changed and evolved throughout the novel: Dove, Champ, Shawna, Camio, Jessy, Zane, Lucky, and Miranda. Was your initial impression of these characters based on physical presentations and rumors? Did learning more about their backgrounds and experiences increase your empathy towards them? Why or why not?
9. Discuss the relationship between Dove, Neely, and Champ. How are they complicit in each other’s lies? How do they distance themselves to avoid thinking about their past and their mother?
10. As the first female Chief of Police in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, Carnahan faces sexism at various points in her career and throughout the novel. How does she deal with being treated differently among her co-workers and with the men and women she interrogates? What assumptions do others make based on her age? As Dove notes: "I'm okay with my age but nobody else is. Especially men."
11. Dove observes, "We didn't know living nightmares don't ever go away because you can't wake up from them. The most you can hope for is to dilute them by spreading them around." How does this quote reflect the lives of various characters in the novel?
12. Consider the parenting styles portrayed in Angels Burning. During the course of the novel, parents are portrayed abandoning their children, being disinterested in their well being, putting them in harm's way, or defending and protecting them. Reflect on how were these characters treated as children and think about how that may have informed their parenting style. Dove observes: "I also know what it's like to have a mother who doesn't care about you. This isn't always the same thing as having one who doesn't love you. Love is a highly subjective concept; everyone has different standards for what qualifies." How this is reflected in the various relationships portrayed in the novel.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read Tawni O’Dell’s previous novel One of Us with your book club. Discuss how these two novels relate to each other. Both are set in mining towns. Discuss the significance of setting and locale in O’Dell’s work.
2. Tawni O’Dell wrote an essay called “The Oprah Effect” for OfftheShelf.com detailing the experience of her book Back Roads being chosen as an Oprah Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection. Read the essay here and discuss her experience: http://offtheshelf.com/2014/09/the-oprah-effect-tawni-odell-back-roads/.
3. Visit www.TawniODell.com to learn more about the author, her other books, and read other essays she has written.
Tawni O’Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including Back Roads, which was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection. She is also a contributor to several anthologies, including Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female. Her works have been published in more than forty countries.
"In Angels Burning, Tawni O'Dell ratchets up the suspense with stunning twists and turns that send the unsuspecting reader careening toward a shocking ending. Angels Burning is a no-holds-barred, page-turning, perfectly crafted thriller that kept me reading long into the night. I can only hope that this is not the last we hear of O'Dell's feisty and complicated protagonist Dove Carnahan."
– Heather Gudenkauf, author of THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE
"With a writer as insightful as Tawni O'Dell, and a protagonist as fascinating as Dove Carnahan, from the first page you brace yourself for the hard truths of the town of Campbell's Run. Angels Burning lives up to every bit of its promise. This is a terrific book."
– Jamie Mason, author of THREE GRAVES FULL and MONDAY'S LIE
“O’Dell returns with a captivating mystery… Filled with surprising twists and turns, this whodunit in a sullen town is a page-turner.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Compelling, fast-paced…O’Dell’s latest is character-driven fiction at its best.”
– Library Journal, starred review
"Without doubt, Angels Burning is the best mystery I’ve read all year. Tawni O’Dell’s characters are at once brutal and tender, baffling and wise. They will hold you transfixed while this story sneaks up and breaks your heart."
– Carla Norton, New York Times Bestselling Author
"A feast of a story. O'Dell handles family, friendships and toxic love with a ferocity reminiscent of Pat Conroy."
– Stella Cameron, New York Times Bestselling Author
"O’Dell’s language is as beautiful as her setting is bleak, and her characters live and breathe as they struggle over the defining line between victim and survivor. Angels Burning is a fine mystery, but O’Dell is also working on a broader canvas: the rust belt of the human heart."
– Matthew Guinn, author of THE SCRIBE and THE RESURRECTIONIST
"This book had me on the edge of my seat. I promise—you won't be able to put it down."
– New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak
“O’Dell does a stellar job of depicting the despair of those who live in a blighted rural community, while providing a complex study of the human soul and the fragile line that’s crossed when someone chooses to end another person’s life.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A darkly compelling look into how the past colors the present, this psychological thriller will linger with readers.”
– RT Book Reviews, four-star review
“Impossible to put down.”
“O’Dell shows why she is among the bestsellers. Her magic is powerful.”
– Suspense Magazine
“Intense psychological thriller…O’Dell tells her dark tale with assurance and a talent…Intriguing characters.”
– Bookpage Online
“Tawni O’Dell’s Appalachian mystery is vividly set.”