Oregon Hill

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.

Black Swan

After taking a brief break from his Sam Acquillo Hamptons mystery series with last summer’s glorious paean to the Jersey shore, Elysiana, Chris Knopf returns to form with a whodunit as smart and insightful as it is gripping and intriguing.

Black Swan opens with a bang as Acquillo battles gale-force winds and rough seas to pilot a friend’s sailboat safely to harbor. Yet no sooner does the reluctant amateur detective dock in the exclusive resort town of Fishers Island, New York, than he finds himself entangled in a murder plot of epic proportions. The victim, it turns out, was a partner in a major tech firm poised to reap billions from the launch of the latest version of its trademark software. The only problem is that the product is riddled with bugs — and the only programmers who can fix the problem are prime suspects in the case.

Adding to the pressure are the facts that Fishers Island has all but closed down for the coming winter, the remaining denizens would like nothing more than for Acquillo to disappear, and an autistic programming prodigy has gone missing, taking with him the only real clues in the case. To top it all off, a massive hurricane is about to slam the island, thus ratcheting up the urgency of Acquillo’s investigation. That the man spends much of the novel sucking down vodka and longing for a cigarette is, to say the least, understandable.

As with all of the titles in the Sam Acquillo series, Knopf maintains tight pacing throughout Black Swan while simultaneously combining the best elements of noir and gothic mystery fiction. Many reviewers have noted an affinity between Acquillo and such iconic detectives as Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Robert Parker’s Spenser. Moreover, by isolating Acquillo and company on Fishers Island, Knopf also evokes the claustrophobic tension of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. What really sets this novel apart, however, is its smart yet subtle commentary on our growing dependence upon technology and the ways in which it is changing the nature of humanity. Though Acquillo deftly brings his murder investigation to a satisfying end, the larger question that haunts the novel still remains: Have we, at long last, been reduced to slaves of technological progress, or do we still have control over the machinations we’ve set loose upon our world?

With Acquillo in our corner, there’s always hope.