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Reporter questions choice of suspect

Richmond newsman stirs the pot in murder case

By Drew Gallagher

For The Free Lance–Star

PERHAPS the highest compliment I can pay to Howard Owen upon finishing his new novel, “Oregon Hill,” is that I had to contemplate how many people I needed to recommend  this novel to.  First there is my father,  a lifetime newspaperman who started out as a police reporter and retired as editor of a large daily just as the death knell started to softly toll for print journalism.  Then there is my friend Bill Glover, a lawyer downtown and the biggest fan of Walter Mosley I know.  And I’m not going to heap unfair comparisons on Mr. Owen because Mosley is the dean of the detective novel, but the mere fact that “Oregon Hill” has echoes of Mosley is the highest praise.

Willie Mays Black is an old-school reporter for the lone daily newspaper in Richmond.  He drinks a lot and marries a lot and does neither with great success.  He’s got a daughter at VCU on the lifetime college plan and he needs to keep his reporter gig at least until she graduates, although as he reflects upon his job prospects at age 49, he realizes that he needs the paper more than it needs him.  Black is assigned to the late-night cop beat as punishment for prior defiance of upper management when into his lap falls a story that only he, a native of Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood, can unravel.

A  VCU student is inexplicably murdered and then decapitated before her torso is dropped into the South Anna River.  The missing head shows up a few days later on the doorstep of a well-heeled family in Boston.  The police have their suspect almost immediately, and the only drama left in the case is whether the suspect will get life or the needle.  That is, until Black starts to dig a little bit, much to the dismay of his editors, who don’t think it will sell more papers or advertisements, and the Richmond police, who don’t care to be second-guessed on Page One.

Owen is the business editor for The Free Lance–Star, so he’s had the unfortunate privilege of a front-row seat at the downsizing that has hit the newspaper industry.  But at least in “Oregon Hill” he has mined the dying of newspapers for some good in the creation of Willie Black, who isn’t going to go quietly  (or at least not soberly).

“Oregon Hill” is a tightly wound mystery. Even if people aren’t reading newspapers these days, they should be reading this enjoyable novel.  Do your part and think globally by reading locally.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.

OREGON HILL

By Howard Owen

(Permanent Press, $28,  240 pp.)

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/books/2012/07/24/reporter-questions-choice-of-suspec/

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