Let’s hear it for late middle-aged good-bad boys. The guys who drink and smoke too much, attract women but lose them and would self-destruct were it not for the intervention of loyal friends, forgiving relatives, admiring enemies and pure luck. What these guys lack in discipline they make up for in courage and smarts (and smart-ass repartee). They don’t outright lie about their past mistakes, but they do tend to not offer the whole truth when the going gets rough. And it always does in a Howard Owen crime mystery featuring Willie Black, an incorrigible investigative newspaper reporter who seems always willing to do the wrong thing in the interest of justice. In The Philadelphia Quarry, Owen’s second novel in the Black series, named after the city’s exclusive Commonwealth Club, and starring Willie, who looks white but has black relatives (they call him the “white sheep of the family”), trouble comes early.
Though it’s not difficult to figure out early on who killed Virginia socialite Alicia Parker Simpson and who raped her 28 years earlier (a crime for which Richard Slade, a black man, was imprisoned until DNA established his innocence), the engaging feature of The Philadelphia Quarry is its prose—playfully terse, lively, full of wit and narrative skill, as confirmed by the opening paragraph: “The morgue is self-serve, which isn’t the best of news, because some of our reporters are mechanically challenged, and there’s no one there to teach them for the third time how to thread the microfilm machine. Watching someone like Ray Long try to do it…was like watching a monkey try to fuck a football.” Morgue? Today’s gang would call it online archives.
The time is 2011, but at Willie’s paper, he’s seen as though he were “some exhibit at the Newseum.” Look,” a couple of Tweeters say, staring at him, “He’s even wearing a wristwatch!” Well, let them mock! Despite repeated suspensions for his ornery independence by the paper’s
conservative and controlling suits, Willie knows his way around police, lawyers and politicos and can finesse interviews with high society types as well as hoi polloi.
He knows how to blog when he wants to generate attention: “Most of my best stories were the ones somebody told me not to write.” And he knows how to honestly assess himself. “I am not a cruel man, but I am a purebred, flea-bitten newshound. Sometimes, I wish whoever amuses himself by watching us fetch the truth would throw that stick for someone else to chase. Me, I can never resist going after it and then returning for a pat on the head.”
Willie may be a lone star, but he attracts a diverse bunch of oddball characters, which give the novel character color. These include an ex-con with whom Willie shares digs (and whose partial salary at something helps pay Willie’s rent to his third ex-wife; Willie’s many-times-married mother, Peggy, who is almost always stoned but has a good heart, taking in homeless losers such as Awesome Dude; Willie’s aimless but loving daughter Andi; a hilarious Al Sharpton-type defense attorney; and competitive up-and-coming Turks at the paper, who know enough to defer to him. For all his sympathy for Slade, however, who is his second cousin, Willie’s no pushover: “A guy who says he slept all night like a baby at his momma’s house should not be videotaped at three thirty A.M. buying cigarettes at the Kwik-Mart. It sends the wrong message.”
Willie goes where angels and colleagues fear to tread. And the reader loves him for it. And loves that, like his author, he’s an old-fashioned regional newspaper man – well read, resourceful and dedicated to print journalism, even as layoffs continue to take out those who aren’t trendy, and media moguls bent on political empire buy and destroy long-lived publications. Of course, this being part of a series, All’s Well That Ends Well, but the circuitous ride is enjoyable.