With Grace, veteran Richmond, VA newspaper editor, reporter and feature writer Howard Owen, still sticking with investigative journalist Willie Black who continues to bite the hand that feeds him, has arguably created the best book so far in the Willie Black murder mystery series. Where the earlier four books garnered well-deserved critical acclaim and awards, Grace exhibits a tighter, more confident craftsmanship, as Owen shows that he knows how to work exposition into an engaging plot while training a jaundiced eye on his protagonist, keeping Willie the same but not quite the same. Willie, now 54, whose black father disappeared at birth and who still delights in being the good bad boy of print journalism at his paper (his nasty, venal publisher has pushed him into the late-night crime beat), has evolved into an even more sardonic chaser of the justice and truth. Hilarious at times and always cynical and selectively foul mouthed, he seems aware of time’s winged chariot – the press of time and his history of being a fuck-up. But he’s not afraid to use the L word for his lady love, whom he just might make number four, if he can rout or, more realistically, diminish his demons. He loves to drink, fight, stand pat when the dam breaks and, go where angels fear to tread. A half bro, he can mix and mix it up with whites and blacks, people of all classes, professions and vocations and relationships to the law, earning the admiration of the innocent and the criminal.
Like some others in the hard-boiled detective genre, Willie attracts because he is flawed and heroic, but he has limits about what he will do and not do to get the story, the bad guy, the girl. His honesty, integrity and ethics endear him to the various oddball men and women he interacted with in the earlier books who are back again. These include Peggy, his reefer smoking mom, Awesome Dude a former homeless derelict, his ex-wife Kate, a lawyer who is his landlord, an Indian he has befriended, his admiring colleagues both at the paper and in the police department, and his slightly estranged but beloved daughter, Andi, now an unmarried mom herself. Not to mention all those bartenders who know him well. Willie also knows himself. Of his ability to judge others, which he thinks he usually does well, he adds, “I’m my biggest fan, so maybe I’m a tad biased.” Unlike many modern day protagonists, Willie believes in “social justice, the Golden Rule, cold Millers, and forgiving women, in no particular order.” In other words, Owen is not in the downer camp of contemporary noir. But he does know how to read literary tea leaves. These say that the hot topics today that inform best sellers include racial tension, class divide, pederasty in the church, failed marriage and alcohol and drug abuse.
As with all the Willie Black books, Owen lets Willie speak for his creator’s values, which are admirable, especially at a time when good old-fashioned print journalism is dying, if not already dead, and when so-called reporting, especially in social media and on certain channels makes no pretense at accuracy, fairness or intelligence. As Willie says, “First-person stories by reporters give me the heebie-jeebies. They smack too much of the kind of `look-at-me’ journalism that some of my compatriots seem to prefer to actually digging and sticking to the facts.” As for the state of the world, it’s easy to take a nihilist line, but Willie is more nuanced that that. He sees that the world is divided “into two equally reprehensible groups, both earnestly involved in their life’s work: judging and affixing blame while assiduously eschewing spell check.” If there is a God, he finds himself thinking, he wonders “ why the hell are we still here? Isn’t it about time for another flood?” But he knows why he is here, and that it to make things right. He has for all his agnosticism a good smattering of . . . grace.
More Willie to come, assuming Trump doesn't get elected president and we emigrate to Canada. The sixth installment, The Devil's Triangle, is done and should be published in 2017. I'm working on something else, more in the lines of the nine literary novels I wrote before Willie came into my life.