Review of One of Us by Tawni O’Dell

Dr. Sheridan Doyle, a fastidiously groomed and TV-friendly forensic psychologist, is the go-to shrink for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office whenever a twisted killer’s mind eludes other experts. But beneath his Armani pinstripes, he’s still Danny Doyle, the awkward, terrified, bullied boy from a blue-collar mining family, plagued by panic attacks and haunted by the tragic death of his little sister and mental unraveling of his mother years ago.

Returning to a hometown grappling with its own ghosts, Danny finds a dead body at the infamous Lost Creek gallows where a band of rebellious Irish miners was once executed. Strangely, the body is connected to the wealthy family responsible for the miners’ deaths. Teaming up with veteran detective Rafe, a father-like figure from his youth, Danny, in pursuit of a killer, comes dangerously close to startling truths about his family, his past, and himself.
–book description

Novelist Alan Michael Parker recently put together a list of books in which a town – a small town, that is – was as much a character in the books as the human characters.  I’ve been drifting towards the same sort of novels – ones set in small towns, but where Parker has been looking at the physical setting and how it’s built into the story, I’ve been looking for the difference in the characters and their relationships as opposed to larger stories that span larger physical spaces.

On one level, One of Us has everything I’ve been looking for in spades – quirky, interesting (and yet those words are still tame) characters, with roots in small town life and no desire to leave. The core of this book is all about the characters, and the author takes readers into the past, laying the groundwork in history to show how that history shaped the people we’re reading about today. The story is ambitious, and it spans generations, with delicious family secrets to boot.

For me, it took 14 chapters for the story to progress beyond character, history, and town exposition.


Past that 14-chapter mark, though, things finally pick up. The book is a double POV, told from Danny’s POV (he’s the son of an abusive father and a mentally ill mother – mom’s in an institution for killing her baby daughter – who escapes the town and becomes a successful psychologist) and from Scarlet’s (the daughter of the richest man in town, who hates her family and is, in essence, a serial killer – she has been since she was a kid).

I think it’s easy to guess where this book is going once you start reading it – that Danny and Scarlet are in reality siblings, separated by their father who was a drunk and wanted to leave his family and elope with Scarlet’s nanny. A plan that began with getting rid of his newborn daughter and shoving her off with the richest family in town grew into something that kept him trapped in the town, unable to leave. Their father is a minor character in the present, a drunk who hates his son and who his son hates as well. Danny is living out the consequence of his father’s decision and his father has never cared. He is not without kindness in his life – his grandfather Tommy and Rafe, a cop in town. I did wonder if they were only two people that saved him from becoming Scarlet

Scarlet, is half a product of a cold family and half a killer all on her own. She kills because she can, because she feels slighted, and I can’t help feeling Danny was probably safer without her in his family. The revelation that they are siblings is tempered by the fact that Danny knows she’s a killer as well, but even without that pesky detail, there are no happy family reunions for this pair. They’re both broken – by the families in which they grew up in. Oh yes, and Scarlet’s a killer – she’s her birth father’s daughter, I think turned up to 10. She has the killer instinct, whereas he was an abusive drunk intent on inflicting pain on his wife and son.

That is this book in a nutshell – family secrets coming to light in a small town with secrets upon secrets. It forms the basis for an exploration of a broken family, filled with secrets and violence. The history that was supposed to enhance the families that were part of this story, however, seems to take over most of this book, resulting in far too many chapters of exposition rather than telling a story.

More on small towns and novels about them.

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Verushka is a writer, editor, proofreader and copyeditor based in Sydney, Australia. She has worked in publishing for 13 years, with a wide variety of content, and she adores working with authors to help them realize their vision. These days, she is working on a freelance writing career, along with her freelance editing. Her passions include all things geeky; she counts an autographed Waiting for Godot window card (with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) and her numerous Spock (Prime, of course!) figurines among her prize possessions. You can read more from Verushka at her blog

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