When the crime novel Back Roads (Berkley) was published in 2000, author Tawni O’Dell had five other unpublished works and a collection of 300 rejection slips. Funny how life works: Back Roads became a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

Set in Western Pennsylvania coal country, Back Roads is rural noir at its best. After an opening line like “All those times me and Skip tried to kill his little brother, Donny, were just for fun,” who can stop reading?

While many popular books often have their film rights sewn up shortly after — if not before — publication, it took the wizards in the motion picture industry close to two decades to adapt a film version of Back Roads, which was released last week.


Early reviews are good for Alex Pettyfer’s direction (the British actor’s first attempt in this capacity). Known for roles in “Endless Love” and “Magic Mike,” among many others, Pettyfer also stars in “Back Roads” as Harley Altmeyer, a young man left in charge of his three even younger sisters after his mother, played by Juliette Lewis, is sent to prison for killing his abusive father.

Working two jobs and foregoing college for family responsibilities, Harley struggles to keep on track in his small-town world. His teenage sister, Amber (Nicola Peltz) is an out-of-control ball of rage. As family secrets loom, Harley begins an affair with a married neighbor (Jennifer Morrison), an older woman who has secrets of her own. When Harley becomes a prime suspect in a local murder, his situation becomes even more desperate.

Some reviewers have commented that the movie is just one too many dysfunctional family tragedies after another, but such is life. Other reviewers’ takes (exceptionally strong female actors, a story that stays with you after the movie ends, and dark, dark, dark themes) make it sound like a movie not to be missed. It premiered in April at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Since her debut book, O’Dell has published five other crime novels, all set in Western Pennsylvania: Coal Run, Sister Mine, Fragile Beasts, One of Us and Angels Burning. All are mysteries with delectable characters; all envelop you in an authentic space. Suspense builds, psychological dramas unfold. The humor is as black as coal.

As a former police reporter, I have an appreciation for realistic cop portrayals, and O’Dell’s are some of the best. Ivan Zoschenko, “the Great Ivan Z,” town deputy and former football legend who narrates Coal Run. Shae-Lynn Penrose, former police officer now driving a cab in Sister Mine. Dr. Sheridan Doyle, forensic psychologist of One of Us. They’ve seen the depths of others’ failures, and their own.

And as a coal miner’s daughter, I have a sense of that community: a former middle class fallen on hard times, jobs that can kill, roads with no street lights and fires that burn underground. Now that the movie is finished, one can only hope O’Dell is working on her next book, one that will take us back there, again.

Back Roads is now available to purchase.

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This image and feature image courtesy of tawniodell.com

Tawni O’Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of four 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.