What kind of sociopath kills a college freshman, decapitates her, and ships her head to her father in a box? Cops say that it was the sleazy, hit-on-the-coeds 32-year-old Martin Fell, but police beat reporter Willie Mays Black has his doubts. True, Fell’s not a fabulous guy, and he did argue with Isabel Ducharme that night. But he says he drove to his Mom’s house that night, she backs him up, and there’s that mustard stain on his shirt. It’s the mustard that convinces Black that Fell might just be actually telling the truth. Plus, it’s a long way from killing a girl because she slapped you to mailing her head to her father. How Willie Mays Black gets to the bottom of this crime, and others, is an excellent read.
Howard Owen’s Oregon Hill reminds me of Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River and the Patrick McKenzie/Angie Gennaro books, including Gone Baby Gone. The plot, the people, and their motivations all hinge on a shared history and a strong sense of place. Oregon Hill is in Richmond, Virginia, and as Wikipedia tells me, it’s a white working class neighborhood.
Willie’s the almost-50, half-black son of the former neighborhood roundheels who’s sliding into old age, genial and perpetually baked. Going to jail or going on the cops are options that are about equally likely for kids growing up in Oregon Hill in the 70s. No surprise, race and class make a big difference in Richmond.
The good-hearted, up-from-the-working class, aging alcoholic with multiple failed marriages character may be a bit of a cliche in crime fiction, whether he’s cop, PI, or reporter, but Howard Owen does a great job with Willie. His character feels real, but more than that, he feels fresh. The reader cares about Willie, his ex-wives, his daughter, his mother and her current live-in, even his friends, contacts and connections. And the way Willie doggedly uncovers the link between today’s crime and a miscarriage of justice from the past, and lives to write about it, keeps those pages turning.
It’s no surprise that Howard Owen can write – he’s a journalist and now editor of the local paper in Fredericksburg, Virginia. No wonder his depiction of the pressures on newspapers today is so realistic. He’s definitely going on my list of authors I watch for. Best of all, he has a back list – Oregon Hill is his 10th book. Fab.