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OREGON HILL by Howard Owen: Book Review

Willie Mays Black’s life is a little precarious these days. The newspaper he’s been at for most of his professional life is cutting jobs right and left; he has three broken marriages behind him; his relationship with his college-age daughter is minimal at best; he needs a roommate to help pay his rent; and now he’s following a story that is beginning to remind him of the worst mistake he ever made in his journalistic career.

Willie gets to the scene of a brutal murder just as the police do.  There’s a body dangling from a tree, the body of a Virginia Commonwealth University student who has been missing for four days. Gruesome as that discovery is, it’s even worse when the corpse is turned around and everyone sees that the girl’s head is missing.

The police make a quick arrest, a thirty-two-year-old man named Martin Fell who had been dating the dead woman, Isabel Ducharme.  Witnesses saw an argument between the two at a bar, then Isabel walking out alone, shortly followed by Martin.  When it’s discovered that Martin was accused years ago in an assault case, the matter seems open-and-shut.

Then Willie’s number-three ex-wife, Kate, contacts him and tells him that she’s the attorney for Martin and that Martin’s mother wants to see Willie.  The reporter is less than enthused.  And when the mother tells Kate and Willie that her son was with her at the time the murder was committed, Willie thinks to himself, “You’re his mother.  Of course you don’t believe your darling boy chopped a girl’s head off.”  But when Louisa Fell tells him the time her son came to her house that night, Willie realizes that it would have been nearly impossible for him to have murdered Isabel.  Of course, that assumes that Louisa is telling the truth, but it’s enough to make Willie determined to look into the matter.

Willie is an intriguing character. He’s so full of faults it’s a bit hard to know where to begin.  An admitted adulterer, a heavy smoker, a man who can drink to the point of blackouts, a mostly absent father.  It seems as if any reader would be put off by these character traits.  On the other hand, Willie’s a stand-up guy.  He’ll pull himself out of bed in order to rescue his mother’s boyfriend from the roof he’s climbed onto; he’ll insist on writing newspaper stories about Isabel’s murder in his own way, aware that one false step will send him to the unemployment line.

He’s surrounded by other interesting people.  There’s his mother, Peggy, who is still smoking weed day and night; her live-in boyfriend, Les, a former minor league baseball player who is showing the beginnings of dementia; the editor and the publisher of the Richmond paper Willie writes for, both of whom are seemingly more concerned with the paper’s bottom line than with its contents; and Willie’s three former wives.

Oregon Hill is the neighborhood in Richmond where Willie grew up. It’s a place that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the more than forty years since his birth to a marijuana-addled seventeen-year-old girl.  His mother still lives there, but also still in the neighborhood is David Junior Shiflett.  A bully as a boy, he is now the detective who arrested Martin Fell and who still strikes fear into Willie’s heart.

Howard Owen is an established novelist and short story writer.   He’s written the sequel to Oregon Hill, due out next year, and I’m already eager to read it.

You can read more about Howard Owen at his web site.

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