Willie Black is a 60-year-old multiracial reporter who covers the night cop beat for a dying newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. He smokes, drinks, and falls too much in love, knows the squalid side of his town as well as he knows his own face, and fiercely devotes himself to a profession that has not been kind to him.
Author Howard Owen, a former journalist from Virginia himself, first featured Willie in “Oregon Hill” in 2012, and now, in the 12th book in this underrated crime novel series, the grip of the protagonist on employment is more tenuous than ever. The decline of print journalism is a recurring theme in these books, and thanks to massive budget cuts and the layoffs of a greedy and absentee business owner, the newspaper to which Willie has devoted his life seems poised to set him free.
As “Dogtown” opens, a plumber, Richmond’s first murder victim of the new year, is discovered near train tracks in a bad part of town, with his throat slit and one of his fingers removed. When two other victims are massacred in the same way, Willie realizes that the town he has a love/hate relationship with has a serial killer on its hands.
While the police investigation leads nowhere, Willie, a dogged and competent investigative journalist, sets out on his own to end the reign of terror while generously mentoring a young journalist who is looking for his job. Working long hours without paying overtime, he goes up against an evasive police chief, an ethically compromised mayor, and even anti-vaxxers to bring the case to a disturbing conclusion.
In a sense, Willie is an archetype. Most American newspapers have a seasoned reporter or two like him, battling long odds to do the thankless job of holding officials accountable while struggling to keep his job and bring the First Amendment to life. However, his quirks and biting, self-deprecating sense of humor are unique to him.
As always in an Owen novel, the writing is tight, the dark story is spiced up with humor, and Willie’s quirky collection of friends and ex-wives is ever so engaging.
Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award winner Bruce DeSilva is the author of Mulligan’s mystery novels, including “The Dread Line.”
Bruce Desilva, The Associated Press
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