Review: A reporter at a dying paper solves a serial murder

“Dogtown,” by Howard Owens (Permanent Press)

Willie Black is a multi-racial, 60-year-old reporter who covers the night-cops beat for a dying Richmond, Virginia, newspaper. He smokes, drinks, and falls in love too much, knows the sleazy side of his city as well as he knows his own face, and is fiercely dedicated to a profession that has not been kind to him.

Author Howard Owen, a former Virginia newspaperman himself, first introduced Willie in “Oregon Hill” in 2012, and now, in the 12th book in this underappreciated series of crime novels, the protagonist’s hold on employment is more tenuous than ever. The decline of print journalism is a recurring theme in these books, and thanks to massive budget cuts and layoffs by a greedy, absentee corporate owner, the newspaper to which Willie has devoted his life appears on the verge of cutting him loose.

As “Dogtown” opens, a plumber, Richmond’s first murder victim of the new year, is discovered near the railroad tracks in a bad part of town, his throat cut and one of his fingers removed. When two more victims are butchered the same way, Willie realizes the city he has a love/hate relationship with has a serial killer on its hands.

With the police investigation going nowhere, Willie, a dogged and skilled investigative reporter, sets out to end the reign of terror himself while at the same time generously mentoring a young reporter who is after his job. Working long hours without overtime pay, he contends with a stonewalling police chief, an ethically compromised mayor and even anti-vaxxers to bring the case to a disturbing conclusion.

In a sense, Willie is an archetype. Most newspapers in America have a veteran reporter or two like him, battling against long odds to do the thankless job of holding public officials accountable while struggling to keep his job and breathe life into the First Amendment. However, his quirks and his biting, self-deprecatory sense of humor are all his own.

As always in an Owen novel, the writing is tight, the dark story is leavened with humor, and Willie’s oddball collection of friends and ex-wives are as engaging as ever.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”