In Oregon Hill, Howard Owen pulls double-duty by crafting a compelling page-turner and offering commentary on the dying art of investigative journalism. His protagonist is an aging reporter named Willie Black who’s recently been assigned to cover the night cops’ beat — a demotion that places him squarely at the center of a murder investigation even as his career teeters on the brink of oblivion. Shortly after a missing co-ed turns up decapitated in the South Anna River, Willie is as relieved as anyone in Oregon Hill when the apparent murderer is apprehended. Haunted by a miscarriage of justice he witnessed in his younger days, however, Willie can’t leave well enough alone, and his investigation leads him into increasingly dangerous territory. Meanwhile, his best friend is under investigation for robbery, his mother’s lover is drifting deep into senility, and his latest ex-wife is hounding him for the rent. In short, Willie has struck the perfect work-life balance insofar as his work and his life are equally thorny. Indeed, that Willie has so much to juggle speaks volumes for the author’s prowess as a storyteller: Owen never misses a beat or leaves a narrative thread untended for too long.
While the narrative is certainly compelling, what gives Oregon Hill a degree of heft is its commentary on the fate of print journalism in the digital age. To an extent, the novel decries the sad state of affairs created by the dwindling readership for traditional newspapers. At the same time, however, Owen is careful not to indulge in too much hand-wringing, as his protagonist is quick to recognize the value of so-called “new media” even if he’s somewhat reluctant to embrace it. In this sense, Oregon Hill looks forward as much as it looks back, and offers a fairly complex look at our culture’s current relationship with journalism.
Reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen’s Basket Case, Oregon Hill is as smart as it is thrilling, a true literary page-turner.