Parker Field by Howard Owen
Dropping for a moment into the American vernacular, realtors claim the key to a sale is location to the power of three. In a sense, the same formula applies to authors when it comes to the setting of their novels. There must be a credible physical place in which the action is to occur. The culture of the place at that specific moment in time must resonate with the readers. We must feel we’ve known places like this and, more importantly, the setting must help to set the mood for the action. And the people who live and work there, both individually and collectively, must step off the pages as living and breathing members of the community. In Parker Field by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2014) we find all three realtor qualifications met as our series character, Willie Black, continues to scrape a living as a journalist in Oregon Hill, one of the neighbourhoods in Richmond, Virginia. For those of you who like a little history, the stadium named Parker Field was built in 1934 as a general place for community and sporting activities, and converted to minor league baseball in 1954. It has now been demolished.
Those of you who know me might crack a smile that I should suddenly have developed some knowledge, albeit paltry, of the American obsession with baseball. I confess sport, no matter which country and its local preferences, has always left me cold. After a long lifetime, I can put my hand on my heart and say I have only twice paid to see a professional game played. That has not stopped me from being a moderately competent player of two sports. I’ve just never been interested in following how well or badly other people perform. As the title of this book might suggest, the theme for this investigation is that there seems to be an unusually high death rate among the 1964 team which called itself the Richmond Vees. This is an entirely fictitious team that plays in Parker Field during the fallow year between the departure of the Virginians and the arrival of the Braves. The reason for establishing this somewhat arcane fact is that someone takes a shot at Les Hacker who was a member of the team. Willie is directly involved because Les is living with his mother and has become a kind of surrogate father.
Although the probable motive for the killing emerges quite early on, it’s impossible to see who would have the inclination to act after so long a period of time. There’s also a serious logistical problem for the possible killer to have found all these people and then patiently waited between the deaths so a pattern to the deaths would not be obvious. We therefore settle in for the long haul as our doughty journalist cum detective tracks down everyone who was on the team or their surviving relatives. Once he begins talking to them, a strong indication emerges he’s on the track of a serial killer but, of course, the local police are unimpressed. They have arrested the local homeless vet who made the mistake of wearing the jacket so conveniently dumped on him while he was “resting” in the park. Such is the bullheaded stupidity required of local law enforcement who prefer the obvious solution to the right answer. In the end, Willie solves the problem and ends up no better than he was at the beginning of the book except he’s now without Les.
Taken overall, Parker Field is a particularly fine example of how to make the setting a character in the book. Everything that happens grows organically out of the place and the people who live there. There’s just one thing preventing this from being an outstanding book. Up to this point in the serial killing, the killer has been meticulous and patient. But the later scenes reveal him/her as almost completely unbalanced and not a little reckless. This means the ending is unnecessarily melodramatic. So if you’re prepared to go with the flow and see Willie Black call down destruction on his own head, you will feel satisfied with the outcome. Otherwise, you will think there could have been many better ways for the realism of the set-up to have been continued to the last page.
For a review of the second in the series, see The Philadelphia Quarry.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.