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Book Review: Dogtown

The Permanent Press

Writing a detective series is tricky. If you’re good and it’s your 12th murder mystery, the protagonist has to age, the secondary characters have to be referenced appropriately and political and cultural issues have to be updated. Richmond Virginia journalist and writer Howard Owen is good! Dogtown, the newest outing in his Willie Black murder mysteries, is good because the mystery is not WHO is viciously knifing victims to death and cutting off their fingers, but WHY — why innocent people who seem to have nothing in common are being killed off.

The novel’s also good because Dogtown features its now 60-year-old half-Black, half-white night beat reporter Willie, a protagonist at his most sarcastic, cynical, blunt — and witty. And it’s good because Owen manages to keep up with important themes about print journalism and contemporary issues such as the COVID anti-vaxers, corrupt politicians, incompetent police administrators, and racism.

“Dogtown” is so named after the way the Richmond area looks on a map — like a dog’s head. Though factor in Willie’s remark that some on the police force have less intelligence than a Labrador retriever and a weatherman’s crass hilarious attempt to liven up his forecast by bringing two dogs online until they do something unpredictable.

Taking place over 21 days in January 2021, with chapters headed like datelines, the narrative moves fast from the get-go: “Some kids, playing where they shouldn’t have been, found it. They said they saw a hand sticking up out of the weeds. When they got close enough, they saw a body.” Ah, Richmond! In the news and already “up and running in the annual homicide derby," Willie comments. Urban crime, rural crime, Willie’s there, an experienced journalist and admired wordsmith, reduced to lower status because of infractions (read: courage, compassion, and honest investigative reporting). Willie’s part of what’s left of the once proud fourth estate, now only one-third of what it used to be at his newspaper, thanks to greedy corporate ignoramuses and social media that prime the public to care less about truth and more about not being bored.

Willie’s paper, for example, sends out for word editing, he observes, “the way you do for pizza and Buffalo wings.” He still gives his all, however, and even the government officials who hate him, rely on his smarts. He’s the unofficial mentor of just about everyone at his newspaper and a trustworthy contact for half the hustlers and mobsters in town.

Part of the fun in reading Dogtown is that it’s not just about Willie but also his oddball family, friends, and ever-constant frenemies.

Working successfully on his fourth marriage, he’s close to his marijuana-smoking mother Peggy, who lives with the formerly homeless native American Abe Custalow, also known as Awesome Dude. The nickname, which he legalized, comes from when he’d respond to everything anyone ever said with “awesome, dude.” Willie took him in and Awesome’s still grateful.

Comic observations cut in even when danger does. Willie eventually, inevitably, is threatened by the killer who knows where his family lives and moves in to kill them. Although the reader knows that Our Hero will triumph at the end — there may be the 13th novel — Owen once again shows that he can deliver an original and engaging tale, a book you can curl up with.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.