“One of Us”: Murder mystery in coal mining town

Author Tawni O’Dell was born and raised in the coal region of Western Pennsylvania and sets all of her novels in Lost Creek, a small coal mining town in that area. Her stories are told by working people and are quite captivating and imaginative. Her latest novel, One of Us, could arguably be her best novel. O’Dell’s observations about life in the contemporary coal region from a historical perspective are dead-on accurate.

In this book, the story revolves around the 19th-century hanging of some radical coal miners, members of an organization like the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish group whose goal was to organize workers in the Pennsylvania coal fields. The company owned the fields, the town and the courts and just an inkling of a suspicion of belonging to the ‘Mollies’ was reason good enough for a long jail term that is if they didn’t hang you.

For the most part it’s Danny who tells the story, a man who was raised by a coal family and who now works as a forensic psychologist in Philadelphia. His foil is a woman raised by the wealthy and unethical mine owner.

During the course of the story, we are faced with some murders in Lost Creek, which is suffering from economic depression and where the bleak conditions recall something from a Dickens novel. Danny sets out to investigate the murders, and along the way we are told about the struggle of the miners there and the horrific hanging incident.

Eventually, it becomes clear to Danny, who is home to take care of his elderly uncle and his mentally ill mother, that the daughter of the mine owner may be heavily involved in the murders. Like a detective in a Sherlock Holmes mystery, he uses his skills to break through the manipulative and sinister nature of this woman who lives off her father’s fortune.

Spoiler alert!

Then the story takes a most unusual turn, when we discover that Danny and the woman are really brother and sister. He concludes, though I’m not sure that I agree with this assessment, that the woman is a born psychopath. In other words, it was nature not nurture that led to the vicious, anti-social acts she committed throughout her life. Meanwhile, we are reminded of the hanging of the coal miners and the reason that they became radicalized from their work in the treacherous coal mines of the area.

Those who read this novel and find it interesting might find some of O’Dell’s other novels to be equally absorbing. Check out her first novel, Back Roads, and the later Coal Run. O’Dell confronts the actual dilemmas faced by working people and the disaffected.


One of Us, by Tawni O’Dell

Published by Gallery Books, 2014.

Available in Kindle, Hardcover and Audible editions.

Paperback edition will be released April 7