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Book Review: Monument

It can’t be easy writing a new book in a series because you have to consider readers who may be coming to you for the first time, as well as keep up with characters fans tell you they want to see back. But longtime Richmond Virginia newspaperman Howard Owen showed 10 books ago in his Willie Black murder mysteries that he can continue to create absorbing new challenges for Willie, his smart, sardonic, biracial protagonist reporter, now 60, and still working the police night beat because — well, a couple of novels back — he misbehaved. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

What’s amazing is how Owen spins new complications for those in Willie’s orbit in the new book Monument. They include Willie’s colleagues at his newspaper, his three ex-wives, his once long-estranged daughter, his beloved, marijuana-smoking mother who gives shelter to Awesome Dude, a homeless Native American whom Willie befriended some novels back. 

There are also a couple semi-bad actors done with humor, whose saving grace — well, maybe “grace” isn’t the right word — is some redemptive feature that compensates for their criminal behavior and shady ethics. They like Willie because he’s the go-to person when there’s trouble. They know he’s honest, fair and, when convenient, can cleverly connect to either his white or Black genes.

Owen’s also good connecting characters new and old. He has Willie taking a special interest in the vicious double murder of a bookstore owner and his wife that opens the book, because the suspect is the autistic son of his first ex-wife. The kid’s been caught on video coming out of the store shortly after the murders.  And the police think it’s a slam dunk. Not Willie.

What’s also impressive is how Owen picks up on headlines and makes them the center of action in Monument, a mystery that turns less on whodunit than why. Set in Richmond, once the capital of Dixie, the backdrop takes on special significance: Black Lives Matter demos that move to rioting in the wake of the killing of George Floyd; the toppling of statues of Confederate leaders; the attendant and precipitant tear gassing by police of crowds perceived to threaten persons and property.

“How heartening, Willie thinks, “to see Black and white citizens united in something: looting.” In another context he observes that the city jail is “strategically placed” in his city so that “African American mothers in the projects don’t have to go so far to visit their incarcerated sons.” As for those who claim to be just “civilians,” Willie says, “I don’t know antifa from antacids, but I know a skinhead when I see one.”

As if all this contemporaneity were not enough, Owen adds COVID to the mix, which Willie’s mom and Awesome Dude contract.

And there’s more: Like many of Howard Owen’s novels, Monument chips away at the insidious diminution of print journalism. Willie remembers what “slaps down in your driveway in the morning is still something more serious than what we send to dot-com land.” He misses the old days of “newsroom camaraderie and after-work bar society” that make low pay and terrible hours somehow tolerable. He pays homage to the old guard, including an alcoholic journalist “of a certain age” whose parents jocularly named her Ella Minopee, as in the Alphabet song — L-M- N-O-P. OK, groan but know that Monument is an authentic crime novel — instructive and a lot of fun.