The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen
The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2013) is the second to feature Willie Black, one of these journalists who just won’t take no for an answer. If his editor or the publisher tells him to “back off”, he stubbornly runs towards it, no matter what the danger. This is not, you understand, the result of natural perversity. This is the mentality of the stereotypical “news hound”, the reporter who never lets go once he gets his teeth into a story. In an earlier life, he was probably Tintin. In this reincarnation, he’s a three-times married alcoholic who leads a charmed life working for a newspaper that’s more interested in pleasing their wealthy socialite owners than the pursuit of truth and justice. For what it’s worth, I also note the coincidence of this being the second book in as many months in which a man is passing. For those of you not up on the intricacies of racism in America, the “passing” refers to an African American who’s sufficiently pale in skin colour to be able to pass as white. In defence of the somewhat ironically named Mr Black, he does not find out about his ancestry until after this book has started and, having digested the information, is not embarrassed to disclose his relationship to a very clearly African American with an interesting past, a man called Richard Slade.
When Willie Black was just starting out as a reporter some twenty-eight years earlier, the big local case was the rape of Alicia Parker Simpson who was an innocent young thing of sixteen summers. The man accused and convicted was Richard Slade. He serves twenty-seven years before DNA testing shows him not to be the guilty man who left his seed at the scene. Some five days after his release, Alicia is shot dead in her car. Naturally everyone in officialdom lines up to accuse Slade of taking revenge for spending all those years in jail. Except none of this may be as straightforward as the police and prosecutors would like to think. Included in the undecided camp is our hero and one of his ex-wives who’s assisting in running the defence. Normally his involvement in the investigation would not be a problem, but the newspaper has been writing inflammatory editorials and has the family and many in the local community hostile to the press. Mr Black therefore finds it difficult to get anyone to talk with him until his mother mentions his link to the family. That breaks the ice and gives our hero an opportunity to talk with both the accused and his mother. Things take off from there.
There are several good things about this book. The first is the quality of the prose. Howard Owen has a natural flow to his writing which makes it a pleasure to read. There’s also considerable credibility in the characters we meet en route to the solution of both the original rape and the new murder. While making allowances for some stock characters out of central casting, some individuals are pleasingly different from the norm and add an extra layer of interest to the book. Unfortunately, this interest does not stick so tenaciously to the primary character. Alcoholic reporters from the old school of investigative journalism are difficult to do well. His hippy mother who still spaces out on cannabis feels reasonable but his ex-wife and daughter don’t quite fit. Sadly, the character that is WIllie Black feels a little “convenient”, fitting into the needs of the plot rather than engaging in events to shape outcomes. Although he does scare up some information by his own efforts, the key to really understanding what’s going on comes when one of the Simpson family breaks ranks and starts to feed him information. Without that lucky break, he would never get anywhere near the solution and would end up fired from his job and probably in jail for dangerous driving while drunk.
Although there are some nice moments in the plot and the writing itself is a joy to read, The Philadelphia Quarry ends up less than exciting. It’s a brave effort but, given the first in the series was nominated for the Hammett Prize, somewhat of a disappointment.
For a review of the sequel, see Parker Field.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.