In my youth, the town of Brilliant, Ohio, was loaded with enough potential hazards to make the mothers of adventurous boys gray at 30. The hills to the west were peppered with abandoned coal mines and high walls from strip mining operations. There was a bottomless sand quarry at the south end of Brilliant where, according to local legend, the depths were patrolled by catfish the size of school buses.

And there was the Ohio River, unforgiving and foreboding. At an early age, I was warned against venturing into the river, where suck holes could pull a little boy to a watery grave and never give up his body.

In A Brilliant Death, teen buddies Travis Baron and Mitch Malone set out to learn more about Travis’s mother, Amanda, who was killed in 1953 when a coal barge rammed the pleasure boat she was sharing with her lover. Amanda Baron’s body was never found, and she became a sort of Amelia Earhart of Brilliant, Ohio. With the help of a disgraced former detective who spent time in prison for falsifying evidence, the boys’ curiosity leads them into a murder investigation.

Brilliant rests on the banks of the river between Steubenville, Ohio, and Wheeling, West Virginia. When I was growing up in “the Valley,” in the late 1950s and ’60s, it was a rough, blue-collar stretch of bottomland where mills cranked out steel and belched enough smoke to blot out the sun.

Amanda Baron’s disappearance stemmed from my fascination with the 1946 disappearance of Lola Celli, a 24-year-old school teacher in West Mansfield, Ohio. Celli was visiting her parents in the Columbus suburb of Grandview Heights for Presidents’ Day weekend when she left the house Saturday morning to catch a bus downtown to go shopping.

She never made it to the bus and was never seen again. She had been missing nearly 35 years when I became the crime reporter at the Columbus Dispatch. I combed the paper’s archives and read every word about the unsolved case.

The characters in A Brilliant Death were originally created for an anthology about life in an industrial Ohio River town. I was urged to put the stories into a more traditional novel. I did, but ultimately shelved it when I couldn’t find any interest from publishers.

A few years ago, my agent, Colleen Mohyde, read the manuscript and urged me to give it a rewrite. I did, and A Brilliant Death emerged.

Sometimes, it would seem, the river does give up its dead.