Jim Nesbitt is the author of three hard-boiled Texas crime thrillers, The Right Wrong Number, The Last Second Chance and The Best Lousy Choice. All three are available in paperback or Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/author/jimnesbitt
JIM NESBITT REVIEW: OREGON HILL BY HOWARD OWEN
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.
JIM NESBITT REVIEW: EVERGREEN BY HOWARD OWEN
THE PAST NEVER DIES
If you ever worked at a newspaper, you knew a guy like
Willie Black. Hard-nosed and obsessed when chasing a story. Hard-drinking whether he was on the hunt or not. More ex-wives, back-street lovers and one-night stands with other reporters than Tanya Tucker’s had hot meals.
A smartass who never knew when to shut up. To bosses, cops or pols. Might get him demoted from the capitol beat to night cops, but he was too good a reporter to fire.
Newsrooms used to be full of guys and gals like Willie. Back when print journalism was lively, vibrant and bawdy fun. Back before newspapers went the way of the buggy whip and the steam locomotive and newsrooms became dead zones of empty desks and survivors doing the jobs of four or five of the departed.
Willie’s old school, pushing 60 and too stubborn and scared to change. Along with last night’s booze, Willie oozes authenticity. Which is why Howard Owen’s most durable character is so compellingly believable, book after book, a tribute to the author’s own ink-stained career.
In Owen’s latest book, Evergreen, Willie’s latest obsessive story chase is his own legacy — the black father he never knew, killed in a one-car wreck on a back road when Willie was a toddler, leaving him to be raised by his white mother in the most redneck enclave in Richmond, Va. He grew up during the deeply segregated early 60’s, when it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry, the Klan was a lethal terror and a mixed-race child was a shameful thing.
Willie, a survivor who has learned to skate through both the white and black world, has never bothered to learn about his father. That changes when Philomena Slade, a dying aunt on his father’s side who Willie reveres like a grandmother, gives him a last request — keep his father’s grave clean, a task she has been performing for decades.
Willie’s father, Artie Black, a jazz sax player and proud black man, is buried in a graveyard called Evergreen. It’s a remote, nearly-forgotten place, a “colored” burial ground overgrown with brush and littered with toppled tombstones — except the graves of a dwindling number of souls who still have family members alive who keep them clean.
At first, Willie reluctantly honors his aunt’s request — but little more. Gradually, curiosity kicks in and he starts asking his mother about his father. Her answers skim the surface as she talks about being smitten by his looks, musical talent and charm, but offer little more.
He tracks down two of his father’s running buddies — old men now who talk about deep friendship and fun times, but also darkly allude to his father’s penchant for trouble and his refusal to bow down to the white man, a fatal flaw in those times.
Willie can smell a story, but every time he pushes a little harder, the old men clam up. There’s a buried secret there and Willie is determined to dig it up, a quest that uncovers murders, betrayal, racist cops, Klansmen and the descendants of men with blood on their hands that want to shut Willie down.
He’s always been willing to pay the price for the truth he seeks. But this time, the cost includes pain and suffering for those Willie loves.