Thursday, February 11, 2021

Jordan's Branch

Dear readers: The 10th Willie Black mystery, Jordan's Branch, is out, available in bookstores and on Kindle. Here's how it begins: CHAPTER ONE Monday, Sept. 2 Stick is deader than a doornail. Not much doubt about that. From all appearances, he’s been that way for a couple of days at least. Other than the fact that I am the local daily’s night cops reporter, what has me somewhat interested in his demise is the fact that he owes me money ¬¬–– fifty thousand dollars, to be exact. Well, that’s not quite right. He did give me 5K up front. Still, it’s a loss. And I guess somebody somewhere will miss Stick, too. I knew something was wrong when I rang the doorbell and then, getting no answer, tried the door, which opened. I almost called the cops at that point, but fools rush in. It was personal, from what I can see. The shot to the chest and one to the head should have done the trick. The other five or six just seem like piling on. Not much chance of salvaging that faux-Persian carpet. The first wave of cops just arrived, wailing up Patterson Avenue and turning on to Glenburnie and then to Stokes Lane like there was something here more urgent than the corpse of which I informed them via 911 maybe 10 minutes ago. The first ones in the door have their weapons drawn. I am very careful not to reach for a Camel, scratch my balls or do anything else that involves lowering my arms below parallel. Still, they put me on the ground. They don’t cuff me, but they are deaf to my attempts to explain that I’m only the bearer of bad news, not the creator of it. “Do you think I would have called you to tell you I just killed somebody and then wait here for you?” I ask. “Shut the fuck up,” a white, bullet-headed bouncer-cop advises. It’s about half an hour before the chief, Larry Doby Jones himself, arrives, no doubt mildly irritated at being dragged from a Labor Day picnic to a homicide scene. “Here’s trouble,” he says, apparently referring to me instead of the other body on Stick Davis’ living-room floor, the one that isn’t moving. The chief sighs. After he walks around the crime scene for a minute or two, he reluctantly tells his boys to let me up. “What are you doing here?” he asks. It seems like a fair question. L.D. seems to take offense at the way I always appear to “poke my nosy ass” into what he considers to be police business but which, from where I live, is part of the job of a diligent quasi-professional journalist. He doesn’t like it much when I’m at the homicide scene not long after his minions have descended on it. Being the one to actually find the body seems, to the chief, to be stepping over the line. I explain my relationship with Stick Davis. “He wanted you to write his life story?” “Something like that. Do you mind if I smoke?” L.D. shrugs. “I don’t suppose Mr. Davis is going to mind too much.” I tell the chief and his detective what I know. I was supposed to meet Stick at the Continental yesterday morning, where we were going to go over the draft of the latest chapter of his would-be autobiography and see if he wanted any changes. When he didn’t show up, I wasn’t overly concerned. Stick Davis has a long history of not showing up when he’s supposed to. But then he didn’t answer my calls yesterday afternoon and evening. So, this morning, I drove out here to Westwood to see what the story was. “And you found him like this?” I promise L.D. that I haven’t touched Stick’s body or anything around it. We’re about two blocks inside the city line, in a neighborhood most folks don’t know much about. There are a couple of other Westwoods around Richmond, but this one has some resonance to me. The late Philomena Slade once schooled me on it, expressing shock that I didn’t know more about the struggles of “my people.” Since I’m an Anglo-African American, Westwood is kind of the story of half my people crapping on the other half. It was started by freed slaves after the Civil War. There used to be a creek running through it, Jordan’s Branch, but it’s now buried under the Willow Lawn Drive median. The place was annexed during World War II. It took the city several years after that to get around to providing water and sewer service, and civic-minded individuals in adjoining white communities did their level best to have it razed for a park nobody wanted or needed. Even the editorial pages of my paper, famous for afflicting the afflicted, fulminated against that idea. And so Westwood survives, although in a diminished state. The old church that was its centerpiece is still there, but businesses and a post office have chewed away at it. It is, by Richmond standards, a peaceful little pocket these days, as much white as black. I seldom have had to visit it to report on a dirt nap. So, Stick’s violent demise is not just a loss to him but also a stain on a part of Richmond that usually encounters such activity by seeing it breathlessly reported to them on the evening news. A few of our residents still read my version of the carnage in the next day’s newspaper. “You’re not going anywhere, are you, Willie?” the detective asks. I am offended that this pup, about half my age, is using my first name. “What’s it to you?” I inquire. The chief steps in. “We got a very dead man here. You seem to have been the last one to see him alive. From what you say, he owed you some money. Do the math, Willie.” I have known L.D. since we were teenagers, playing ball against each other. The fact that he would consider me a suspect in what is obviously a homicide kind of stuns me. “L.D., …” I begin. “You might want to get a lawyer,” my old acquaintance says before he and his smirking detective turn and walk out. “Don’t go anywhere,” the pup says. I give him the finger. He seems to want to continue the discussion, but the chief grabs him by the elbow and escorts him into the next room. I am in the odd but not unprecedented position of reporting on myself. How do I write, under my byline, that “Willie Black, a local reporter, found the body”? There seems to be one, rather unpalatable solution. I go to the contacts page on my iPhone. “Hello, Leighton,” I say when she answers. “I think I have a story for you.” *** Leighton Byrd, one of the two young reporters our penurious chain has let us hire in the past year and a half to make up for six it laid off, is here in 20 minutes. She is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Drink Up Bitches.” It comes halfway down to her knees. “Pool party,” she explains. I apologize for spoiling her holiday fun. “Are you shittin’ me?” she replies. “When you told me what happened, I damn near forgot the T-shirt.” That would have been a pity, I observe. Leighton, who is six years younger than my daughter, does justice to the shirt and no doubt the swimwear underneath it. I don’t intend to permanently cede my byline on this story, even if it was me who found the body. It would be wise, though, to let Leighton break the story. “So this guy, you were writing his autobiography, and somebody killed him before you could finish?” She asks me what he was paying. When I tell her, she whistles. “Wow, he was going to pay you more than I’ll make all year, working my ass off 50 hours a week.” “Welcome to print journalism,” I tell her, looking about for an ashtray. The cops are still hanging around, waiting for the medical examiner. Leighton manages to get a few words from the chief, who seems to give preferential treatment to attractive young women in pool-party attire. He does me the kindness of not mentioning to her that I seem to be his prime suspect. Then she interviews me, one of the weirder experiences I’ve had in my ink-stained life. I realize how the interviewee feels, certain that my words will be mangled or misinterpreted. “Hey, my eyes are up here,” she says when I glance down at her notepad. Then she laughs. “Don’t worry, Willie. I took shorthand in high school. I won’t misquote you.” We leave just as the TV trucks start rolling up the tight little street. This will give some otherwise quiet holiday newscasts a caffeine jolt. I get the hell out of there before the kids who got stuck with weekend duty at the local stations start shoving cameras in my face. I can handle being a nominal homicide suspect and having to forfeit a hell of a breaking story, but being scooped by the good-hair people would be too much to bear. “Be sure to post it, now,” I tell Leighton when I walk around to her car. She has the laptop between her lovely knees. “Already on it,” she assures me. *** I’m home by 1:30, in time to take Cindy to a swim party of our own, at the Philadelphia Quarry. The text message I sent her was short on details. She wants to know more than “Stick dead. Waiting for cops.” I tell her the story. She knows I’ve been spending a lot of my spare time the past few months working on Stick Davis’ life story. The promise of a big payday salved the pain of not getting to spend more quality time with me. “So he was just lying there, dead on the floor?” I explain that he was indeed deceased, and had been for some time. “Did he bleed a lot?” “What?” My right ear’s not been the same since part of it was shot off last year when I got a little too close to a story. “Bleed. Did he bleed a lot?” “Fuck, I guess so. I mean, that carpet’s never going to be the same.” “That’s a shame,” my beloved says. “About the carpet, I mean.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Willie Black goes to Italy

The first Willie Black mystery, Oregon Hill, winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize in 2012, was launched in Italy in November (NN Editore). The second one, The Philadelphia Quarry, will come out it Italian next year. In the meantime, Willie Black No. 10, Jordan's Branch, launches in the U.S. (Permanent Press) in February or early March. And, I've done the first draft on the one after that, which I'm excited about. It is set in Richmond in 2020, with Black Lives Matter, toppled monuments and the pandemic as the backdrop. In the midst of a pandemic, what are you going to do except write, right?

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The AP likes Willie

The Associated Press review of Evergreen, the eighth novel in the Willie Black series and my 18th novel overall, came out yesterday, and it was very pleasing. With any series, there is the fear that the latest installment will be met with something less than enthusiasm. It is my hope that each of the Willie Black mysteries will be a good read on its own, even if the reader has no previous knowledge of Willie. There is the fear that reviewers will not pay it much attention, being, in this case, the eighth book with the same protagonist.
That is why Bruce DeSilva's review for the Associated Press (which has a pretty big audience) is so encouraging. Bruce is a great mystery writer, much respected in the journalism and mystery writing communities.
Here it is:

By BRUCE DESILVA
The Associated Press
This cover image released by Permanent Press shows "Evergreen," a release by Howard Owen. (Permanent Press via AP)
“Evergreen,” by Howard Owen (Permanent Press)
When Willie Black was 15 months old, his father, Artie Lee, was killed in an apparent automobile accident. That’s all Willie — police reporter for a Richmond, Virgina, newspaper — knows about his dad. He’s never been curious about the man.
That changes when Willie’s aunt on his father’s side summons him to her deathbed. She’s been tending Artie’s grave in Evergreen, an abandoned cemetery, and now it’s up to Willie to inherit the chore.
Readers of Howard Owen’s underappreciated Willie Black novels already know that Willie’s father was black, that his mother was white, and that they weren’t allowed to marry in 1960s Virginia. But in “Evergreen,” the eighth book in the series, they’ll grow as curious as Willie about what really put Artie in his grave.
Finding out is no easy task.
Willie’s mother won’t say and urges Willie to drop it.
Artie’s old pals reminisce about his saxophone playing but clam up about his death.
The police chief says there were rumors that the car crash was no accident but has no details.
Old newspaper files are no help. The death of a black man didn’t merit a news story in 1961 Virginia.
Patiently, Willie squeezes a few minor details from townsfolk old enough to remember Artie. Each time he gets a scrap of information, he circles back, telling the witnesses what he knows and teasing out a bit more. He does this so skillfully that it is a pleasure to watch him work.
Eventually, he learns that Artie’s death was connected to a Ku Klux Klan rally, a car bombing and a series of betrayals by friends and relatives who were threatened by racist police officers unless they talked. The result is a conclusion that is both wrenching and satisfying.
Readers seeking the thrills of most popular crime fiction won’t find it here. Instead, they will find a textured, emotionally charged tale about coming to terms with growing up biracial in America told in the precise language of a writer who honed his craft during 44 years in the newspaper business.
___
Bruce DeSilva , winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

More Willie Black

My eighth Willie Black mystery, and 18th novel overall, "Evergreen," comes out in late July. In this one, Willie is asked to take over the maintenance of his late father's grave, in an abandoned cemetery on Richmond's East End. Willie didn't even know where his father was buried, but when he starts digging, so to speak, he finds out that there was a lot more he didn't know about Artie Lee.

I've been doing the Willie Black series for about a decade now. A ninth installment is coming; I'm finishing up the first draft. I find that there is no dearth of settings around Richmond for Willie's adventures and misadventures and hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I've enjoyed writing them. I'm sure that I will occasionally step back and write something non-Willie, like the well-received "Annie's Bones." However, I can't stay away from Willie and his large population of friends, family, enemies and frenemies for very long. It occurred to me early on, as I was writing the short story, "The Thirteenth Floor," that gave birth to Willie Black, that a hard-ridden night cops reporter in the waning days of print newspapers was a gold mine for anyone trying to write noir.

Evergreen Cemetery is on the far east end of Richmond. It is an African-American cemetery that was abandoned after it was built out and is now a ghost land of tombstones overtaken by kudzu and greenbriers, overshadowed by full-grown trees and only recently the focus of a major reclamation project. All in all, not a bad place to set a mystery.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review of Annie's Bones



My latest novel, Annie's Bones, just got a very good review from PW. Willie Black has only a cameo in this one. Willie will be back in Scuffletown, which is set to come out in January of 2019.
Here's the review:

Publishers Weekly March 16, 2018
Annie’s Bones by Howard Owen. Permanent, $29.95 (264p) ISBN 978-1- 57962-522- 1

In 1968, Grayson Melvin, the protagonist of this moving, well-crafted standalone from Owen
(The Reckoning), meets the love of his life, Annie Lineberger, when they’re both college
students in North Carolina. When Annie breaks up with him, he tells her to get out of his car. She
scrambles out and is never seen again. Grayson is the primary suspect in her disappearance, but
without any evidence he moves on—always followed by a cloud. In 2016, Annie’s bones are
found in Portman, Va., and Grayson’s nightmare begins again. He gets support from only a few
people, including Richmond, Va., reporter Willie Black (the lead of Owen’s The Devil’s
Triangle and five other mysteries). Arrayed against him are public opinion, seemingly every
lawman in the area, and Annie’s unforgiving brother, Hayden. The discovery of Grayson’s high
school senior class ring, which he last saw when he refused to take it back from Annie at the time
she left him, puts Grayson on a tortuous path that eventually leads to answers that may or may
not explain what happened. This tale of loss and redemption will resonate with many readers.
(Apr.)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

More Willie on the way

My next novel, Annie's Bones, only employs Willie Black as a walk-on character. The protagonist is a man, an acquaintance of Willie's, who has lived under a cloud for almost half a century, suspected of murdering his girlfriend the night she dumped him in 1968. Now, with Annie's bones dug up by a backhoe operator in a small town on the Virginia-North Carolina border, Gray Melvin must deal with the past at last, taking a trip down a memory lane he'd just as soon have bypassed.
The next Willie Black mystery, Scuffletown, should come out sometime in the next year or so. Like the other Willie books, it takes its title from a real Richmond setting, in this case Scuffletown Park in the Fan. It's all fiction after that, of course, but I guarantee you it will entertain you, whether you know where the Strawberry Street Cafe is or not.
The series keeps getting praise and picking up readers. Grace was a finalist for Killer Nashville's Silver Falchion award. The Devil's Triangle got a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
I'm working on something else Willie-ish. Probably will start writing, as is often the case, on New Year's Day.