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Richmond Noir: Author Howard Owen Is Weaving the City Into Tales of Hard-Boiled Intrigue 

click to enlarge cover28_owen_no_headline.jpg

Scott Elmquist

A twin-engine plane just slammed into Buddy’s.

Wait, no. Not Buddy’s. The Dark Star — a neighborhood bar in Richmond, at Sheppard Street and Patterson Avenue that sounds mysteriously like Buddy’s. It’s across from a 7-Eleven in an area unofficially known as the Devil’s Triangle. You can’t miss it.

The plane shaved off a piece of the 7-Eleven sign on its way to fatally interrupting happy hour. “Oh, thank heaven,” the sign reads still.

That’s the opening scene of Howard Owen’s latest novel.

It’s the scene a reporter named Willie Black rolls up to — parking near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He’s covering the disaster for Richmond’s daily paper. And, for the sixth time in as many years, he quickly comes to suspect there’s more to the crash than what the police are saying.

Willie Black lives in Howard Owen’s Richmond — a troubled city on the rise, mired in racial and class divisions, scrappy and segregated, lurching through a muck of its own making towards change. It’s a place where 50-something childhood friends from Oregon Hill meet at Joe’s Inn for a regular brunch, where journalists and state politicians crowd into Penny Lane Pub at the end of the day, where a homeless man in Monroe Park knows and sees more than you think.

click to enlarge Howard Owen’s Willie Black series lines a shelf at Chop Suey Books in Carytown. The latest, “The Devil’s Triangle,” opens with a small plane crashing into the titular neighborhood — an informal name for the commercial area surrounding the Sheppard Street 7-Eleven in the Museum District. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Howard Owen’s Willie Black series lines a shelf at Chop Suey Books in Carytown. The latest, “The Devil’s Triangle,” opens with a small plane crashing into the titular neighborhood — an informal name for the commercial area surrounding the Sheppard Street 7-Eleven in the Museum District.

Owen’s Richmond is familiar and outlandish all at once. It might depend on how long the readers have lived in Richmond, or how closely they read Richmond history and news, or how often they talk to a geriatric neighbor who’s lived her entire life here.

But no one is writing Richmond so enjoyably or prolifically. Ever since Kay Scarpetta, the Richmond forensic expert and heroine of Patricia Cornwell’s books, retired to Florida in the early 2000s, Willie Black has stepped in — for coffee at 821 Cafe or dinner at Mamma Zu with a daughter who attends Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I’ll run out of steam before I run out of places to set mysteries in this town,” Owen says.

Right now, his novels mostly are known among readers of Richmond fiction and mystery aficionados. Published by New York’s Permanent Press, they have fans across the country. Newspaper people are a core readership, too, Owen says.

But the books will delight all Richmond readers, newcomers and natives alike. “Oregon Hill,” “The Philadelphia Quarry,” “Parker Field,” “The Bottom,” “Grace” and “The Devil’s Triangle” — murders enough to last the summer.

click to enlarge 821 Café, where Willie Black gets his coffee. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • 821 Café, where Willie Black gets his coffee.

Owen, 68, sits in Pop’s Market, a few blocks from the newspaper where he worked for 28 years. He was a sportswriter and editor at The Richmond Times-Dispatch, making sure print readers had the final scores at their doorstep each morning, back when people went to their doorsteps for news.

The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native started writing fiction when he turned 40, an hour a day before going to work. His first novel, “Littlejohn,” came out in 1992. It was well-received as literary fiction and sold more than 50,000 copies. He wrote eight more books — some set in Richmond — with varying degrees of success, but none matched the first.

Owen remembers the old days of the Times-Dispatch fondly. It paid for his master’s degree, and the union collectively bargained for some of the best salaries in the region. The paper had close to a monopoly on print advertising. “Pretty much the money was rolling in,” he says. “I think maybe the younger reporters might be a little less disgruntled about it [because] they never knew how good it used to be.” Now they’re expected to file stories on four different platforms, cover broader beats and produce the content of three reporters with the same accuracy and quality, Owen says.

“Obviously if you could ever get to the point where people would pay a little bit of money to read the paper online, it would solve everything,” he says. “But it’s hard to get people to pay for something they’ve been getting for free.”

Owen lost his job in a downsizing at the Times-Dispatch in 2006 and took a job in Fredericksburg at the Free Lance-Star. From there, he was asked to write a short story for “Richmond Noir,” a 2010 collection of mystery and crime tales set in the city. In his story, “The Thirteenth Floor,” he wrote from the perspective of Willie Black, a crime reporter for the city’s daily newspaper. “I didn’t start out to be a mystery writer,” Owen says. “But it occurred to me that I’d found a character that I could use the first-person voice of for a few books.”

When the first Willie Black book, “Oregon Hill,” won the 2012 Hammett Prize, a prestigious, annual award given to crime fiction, Owen was as surprised as anyone. “I’d never written a mystery. I’d never read many mysteries,” he says. “I think if you write enough, throw enough stuff against a wall, something will stick.”

Newspaper writing and editing is good practice for producing clean copy quickly, Owen says. And, it turns out, it isn’t a bad setting for a curmudgeonly main character either. “Night police reporters I’ve known — they have kind of strange lives,” he says. “You work odd hours. You see a lot of death and destruction. You get your hands dirty.”

Owen never worked the crime beat and says Black is a composite of several reporters he’s known. He won’t name any local inspirations, but does say that he’s called the Times-Dispatch’s Frank Green for an account of an execution, John O’Connor for some inside baseball about stadiums and Beverly Orndorff, a former science writer, for advice about killing off a character.

Through Black, Owen can also mourn the industry in which he once worked — the layoffs and staff shuffling, the diminishing benefits and salaries, the corporate sell offs. Black chafes against editorial leadership. He hates social media. And hardly a page goes by where Owen’s protagonist doesn’t bemoan writing articles for online readers bypassing paywalls.

This is probably where Black and Owen align most closely.

“I’m sure [newspapers] rue the day — and I’m sure there were reasons for it — that they started giving away their product away for free online,” he says. “I wish they had gritted their teeth and said, ‘We’re going to charge just a little bit and people will come to it eventually.’”

For all Black’s complaints about his job, Owen is writing a love letter to journalism. He yearns for the years when words were king. He presumes an era when facts mattered and is nostalgic for it. And he makes a good case for paying for your local daily news.

click to enlarge Penny Lane Pub, where Black drinks pints with his newspaper colleagues. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Penny Lane Pub, where Black drinks pints with his newspaper colleagues.

Owen walks the streets of Oregon Hill, still marveling at the neighborhood that he called home for many years, starting in 1978 when he moved to Richmond for the Times-Dispatch job.

“This area fascinated me because it looked like everyone was related to everybody,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of outsiders.” Owen heard stories of neighborhood boys running off guys who tried to date Oregon Hill girls.

It’s a section of the city cut off from the rest of Richmond by the river, the expressway, the cemetery and Belvidere Street — and it’s also the childhood home of Willie Black. Owen talks of the time when the state prison was right down the hill. Mothers could wave to their incarcerated sons while they hung the laundry, he says.

This is the joy of Howard Owen’s Richmond: the tidbits of history and urban myth woven together as fiction.

Even the titles offer Richmond trivia. The Philadelphia Quarry is a members’-only swimming hole near Windsor Farms, named for the city whose town hall was built out of the stones that were mined there. Parker Field, readers learn, was the precursor to the Diamond.

Settings are familiar: Black lives in the Prestwould, where Owen also lived for seven years — a tall, older building on West Franklin Street at Monroe Park. Black sprains his ankle going down the narrow staircase at Edo’s Squid, and Chiocca’s becomes a dark place to meet a source. Black’s lonely girlfriend orders her dinner at the Robin Inn, and he takes her to Lemaire to apologize for his absence.

click to enlarge Joe’s Inn, where Black meets his childhood friends from Oregon Hill for brunch. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Joe’s Inn, where Black meets his childhood friends from Oregon Hill for brunch.

Owen hews closely to the genre. Stereotypes such as a doughnut-loving policeman are much easier to swallow when Sugar Shack is the spot where Black looks for his loose-lipped officer. And Owen stays current: In his latest release, Black is lured to a hip new Scott’s Addition joint by his millennial daughter. He’s confused by Lunch and Supper’s names.

The Flying Squirrels. The Commonwealth Club. The former Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhoads. Windsor Farms is inhabited by snobs, and Oregon Hill is the kind of neighborhood where fights break out over misplaced beers, while the East End is a zone of concentrated poverty. In “Grace,” he describes Grace Street from end to end. Owen even knows his bus lines.

“It’s a place where lacrosse and auto-racing coexist,” he says of Richmond.

And it’s not just places. The murder in his first book, “Oregon Hill,” bears a passing resemblance to a real 2005 case when a college student was killed. The plot of “The Bottom” concerns a developer who wants to build a giant commercial entity in Shockoe Bottom. And read all the way to the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” for a prescient description of the Coliseum. It’s as if Owen knew the Coliseum news cycle was due for revisiting when he wrote his novel last year.

There are even some characters who will sound familiar. Asked about a small-statured, pugilistic attorney character who seems a lot like a certain former mayoral candidate, Owen denies any relation.

“The last thing I’d do would be to make fun of a lawyer,” he says for the record.

Owen’s novels are Richmond’s romans à clef. It’s a small town masquerading as a midsized city, a tribal village set in Richmond’s historical landscape. It’s old grudges and unsolved murders that seep from the foundations of its architecture. A character in “Grace” who is selling Black lies about a murder case also says that Richmond is crime-ridden and dying. In parentheses, Black tells the reader otherwise, and we know he’s talking to an unreliable source.

The Virginia Film Office should be actively shopping these books to Hollywood producers. Owen says he’s picked up a few checks for film options, but nothing’s ever panned out. That’s because, like Owen, Richmond is the only place for Willie Black to exist.

“I think he’s as Richmond as it comes,” he says.

click to enlarge Howard Owen lived in Oregon Hill when he moved to Richmond in 1978. Owen had Willie Black, the first-person narrator of his mystery series, grow up biracial with a single mother in the mostly white, working-class neighborhood. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Howard Owen lived in Oregon Hill when he moved to Richmond in 1978. Owen had Willie Black, the first-person narrator of his mystery series, grow up biracial with a single mother in the mostly white, working-class neighborhood.

Fair warning. Willie Black may have figured out Twitter by the sixth book — however disdainfully he gathers breaking news from its feed — but gender equality seems a more difficult task.

“Women are harder to figure out than Twitter,” Owen says.

Willie Black lusts after his much younger colleague and sneaks tongue into a friendly goodbye kiss with an ex-wife. He likes to note the number of pounds female characters could stand to lose. When Black leaves his first wife and daughter for a young reporter, the other woman is a caricature of the witchy, conniving blonde — Black’s just a poor man with a boner. Readers learn in “Grace” that Black’s spiritual beliefs include “forgiving women,” but there’s little evidence he’d have anything to forgive that wasn’t richly deserved.

Owen says he’s nothing like the thrice-divorced Willie Black. “It’s not me,” he says. “I’ve been married to the same woman for 43 years.”

Black’s sexism is a flaw, like his drinking and smoking, and it makes him imperfect. “The only thing I can say about him is he’s got bad habits and a good heart,” Owen says. “But if I make him perfect, I might as well quit doing this.”

Black’s mixed-race heritage, too, can seem convenient, a way to play both sides and give the character credibility in two communities. His absent father is a light-skinned African-American saxophone player who died when Black was young. His white mother was 17 when she had Willie. Black is raised white — and passes most of the time.

His racial makeup helps expose a racist character or explain Black’s scrappy, difficult childhood. He has little connection to the black community beyond an occasional booty call with a source named Peachy Love and a few relatives discovered late in life.

And yet, in other ways, Black has got Richmond’s number. He condemns the newspaper for its obsession with the murders — seen as exotic — of white women. In “The Bottom,” Black rails against the developer who wants to build over a slave burial ground, and the reporter writes about how easy it is for Richmond to wrongly convict a young black man of a crime in “Philadelphia Quarry.” Owen’s protagonist is a way for the author to call Richmond out for ignoring and perpetuating the most shameful aspects of its history.

“Obviously, race cannot help but be part of the equation in a city with Monument Avenue in the middle of it,” Owen says. “However you feel about it, it was the damn capital of a rebel country. You can’t get around that.”

Owen’s is a parochial Richmond, obsessed with family names and pedigrees and everything that comes with that. “It’s a city where a lot of people have Roman numerals after their name,” he says. “There are a lot of family dynasty type things going on here that you don’t see in North Carolina where I grew up. I’m fascinated, as an outsider looking in, with the concept of the old-money family getting diminishing returns these days.”

After retiring from the Free Lance-Star in 2015, Owen moved back to Richmond to live in a North Side apartment. Right now, he’s 200 pages into the first draft of the next Willie Black mystery. “I made [Black] 10 years younger than me,” he says, “so that presumably he won’t retire before I get tired of writing about him.”

And “Annie’s Bones” will come out next year — Owen’s first non-Willie Black book since 2010. Though Black has a cameo, Owen returns to the third person for that novel. “Now that I’m retired I have a lot of time to write,” he says.

The forthcoming Willie Black mystery is called “Scuffletown.” If you’ve never heard of it, just wait a while and let Willie Black explain. S

Howard Owen will read from and sign “The Devil’s Triangle” at Chop Suey Books on Wednesday, July 12, from 6-7 pm.


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