Old School Ink

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Check out Honest Jim’s review of Howard Owen’s excellent first Willie Black mystery, Oregon Hill. Then go out and buy it.

Journalists are a clannish lot, particularly the ones who’ve got ink in their veins and an intimate familiarity with the charms of a hangover that requires a fistful of aspirin chased by the 90-proof dog that bit you the night before.

If you’re of a certain vintage, you hate what has happened to the calling you’ve followed for decades — the clickbait chase, the impermanence of the almighty blog, the primacy of the online edition, the withering layoffs and the elimination of the printed word on paper that stained your fingers and made the news a tactile experience enjoyed daily.

You hang on because this is what you’re good at, hustling after front-page glory for chump change, too proud, too old and too scared to change. You would be a guy named Willie Black, Howard Owen’s protagonist in Oregon Hill, the first of six mysteries that feature this dogged Richmond, Va. reporter.

Willie’s an old-school ink-stained wretch with a smart mouth, a bad attitude, a liquor-cured liver and a trail of broken marriages. He’s on the bad side of forty and demoted from the capitol press corps to once again cover the night cops beat, a place for rookies and burnouts.

But there’s still a lot of rebop in Willie’s game. He’s wily and deceptively tough. He had to be both to survive growing up in Richmond’s most redneck neighborhood as the half-black son of a father he never knew and a dope-addled mother who never met a man she didn’t like.

He’s working the beat when police find the decapitated body of a Virginia Commonwealth University student, a young woman about the same age as Willie’s semi-distant daughter. The cops quickly zero in on the victim’s boyfriend, an older guy who poses as a grad student to score with the seemingly endless supply of far younger co-eds.

One of Willie’s ex-wives is the boyfriend’s attorney and gets Willie in to see her client for an off-record chat. Willie is skeptical at first, but his reporter’s instincts kick in and he starts picking away at the case against the boyfriend — ignoring the orders of his bosses and the advice of the few cops who will talk to him.

Willie can’t help himself. He smells a story and keeps chasing the truth. This is where the author’s long experience as a newspaperman comes into play. Instead of morphing into a super sleuth, Willie remains exactly what he’s always been — a reporter. Owen knows newsrooms and journalists and keeps Willie — and himself — honest. No cheap tricks or shark jumping. This book bleeds authenticity.

Willie’s dogged pursuit inevitably brings him face-to-face with an old Oregon Hill nemesis who is now the homicide detective that put the boyfriend behind bars. There’s also the shadow of a killing that took place in the parking lot of a beer joint forty years ago and the murderous reckoning of an account everybody thought was closed.

Everybody but Willie Black.

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