Puzzled to find Willie Black still employed at the same dying Richmond, Va., daily newspaper after seven Pulitzer-worthy investigative reports. With such success one would think he'd be starring at one of the larger metropolitan mainstream papers. I suppose it might have something to do with his heavy drinking and lack of reverence for his bosses. At the same time, he clearly draws his success as a reporter from the tough Oregon Hill neighborhood where he grew up and remains.
I met him first last week reading Oregon Hill, the debut of his eight first-person accounts solving murders in the Richmond area. Oregon Hill so impressed me with its authenticity--the narrator's voice and the feel of both the inside of a newsroom and the city it covers, the bone-depth depictions of its gritty characters and their true dialogue, the compelling story, and...have I forgotten anything? Oh, of course...the simply fine, smooth, engaging craftsmanship! So is Evergreen the second in the Willie Black series? No indeed!
It’s become a habit—and I’m not really sure why—that when I’ve read the first of a series that’s new to me, and I like it, I jump ahead and next read the most recent. Partly, I suppose, it’s to see if the latest adventure lives up to the promise of the first. I’ve found that some writers seem to fall into a rut, maybe grow tired of their characters and sort of go on auto-pilot eventually. Happy to report this is not the case with Evergreen, book eight (and I hope still counting). Altho I have yet to read the six books in between, now that I’ve bracketed them with the first and the last, I’m confident I will read them all—as long as Willie’s around to live them and tell us what happens.
As to Evergreen, a vivid clue to its story can be found in its rather grim cover, depicting the kind of spooky old abandoned cemetery one might expect to find illustrating something by Edgar Allen Poe, some Gothic tale with gloom and ghosts, and doom in the mix. Clearing up that mystery right now, I assure you there’s nothing spectral infringing upon the sensibilities of the living characters in Evergreen. This is not a ripoff of Kolchak the Night Stalker. Here the dead remain dead from beginning to end—except, if you will, in the minds of the living. In particular the mind of Willie Black, whose long-dead father is brought to mind on New Year’s Day by the woman who’s been tending his grave ever since he died mysteriously when Willie was an infant. The woman, Philomena Slade, is on her deathbed. Her son, Richard, informs Willie, awakening him from an unusually hellacious hangover. Without knowing why, Willie goes to see her at the hospital. He tells us why he dragged himself from bed, where his fourth wife lay asleep wearing a pair of men’s underpants around her neck:
“Richard Slade once did nearly half a lifetime for a rape he didn’t commit, and he almost spent the other half in prison for a murder that also was done by someone else. In my never-ending quest for truth, justice, and cheap-ass Virginia Press Association awards, I helped keep that from happening, so we do have some history. And, oh yeah, he’s my cousin, somewhat removed.”
Neither Willie nor his mother had ever been to his grave in the long abandoned Evergreen Cemetery. “Somewhere on the eastern edge of the city, out in that no-man’s land between the projects and the country.” Willie’s mother, had never wanted to talk with Willie about his African-American father. who’d lived with a succession of men since the death of Artie Lee, the light-skinned jazz saxophonist she’d fallen in love with as a teenager.
“He died before I was talking. I have almost no memory of him,” Willie tells us. “He and Peggy never got married, mostly because I was born seven years before the Supreme Court forced the Commonwealth of Virginia to let African Americans and white folks marry each other.” He doesn’t relish taking up the gravekeeping task from Philomena, but she’s persistent. She’d been a friend of Willie’s mother since before he was born. Probably more persuasive, Philomena is “a tough old broad who will haunt me from the grave if I don’t follow through.”
So he does, and his first visit to the grave sparks a curiosity about the man who’d sired him. He begins digging into records and old local denizens who know Artie Lee. It soon becomes clear that no one wishes to dig up the past regarding Lee’s single-vehicle fatal accident Willie learns had been “witnessed” by at least three unnamed people. He persuades his bosses he’s working on a story about his father to run as a feature on Father’s Day, but he immerses himself into this sleuthing through prior years as if looking for the corpse of Jimmy Hoffa. He learns a little bit here and there from a couple of Artie’s surviving bandmates, who inch toward what they seem to know happened but stop dead before the reveal, and from Willie’s old adversary, the Richmond police chief, who reluctantly feeds him a couple of clues on strict, not-for-attribution-to-anyone background. But his first big break in solving the riddle comes while pouring through old newspapers published around the time of his father’s death. He stumbles onto this small headline: Negro man killed/ in Charles City crash. “The story was eight paragraphs long. My father was the lone occupant of the car, the story said. The wreck happened about nine p.m. The car hit a tree, and that was it for Artie Lee, who, our rag reported, died at the scene. The last paragraph: A witness who was walking along Route 5 claimed he saw two other men standing alongside Lee’s car, stopped on the highway, but he couldn’t identify them. Police are investigating.
With more interviews leading to more filament leads, it’s another news clip that flips the light on in Willie’s head. Story about a Klan rally in which a cop and his girlfriend were killed when a bomb exploded under the police car they were “huddling” in. Willie learns the identities of the two cops who investigated this killing. One of them was still alive, barely, but when Willie confronts him he essentially admits to what he knows happened. There are other revelations that tell us, and Willie, why no one wanted to open the can of worms involving Artie Lee’s suspicious death.
As the Bard titled one of “his” plays, All’s Well That Ends Well. Not sure the ending of Evergreen is as well as some of us might like, but it does end. Definitively.
“When Faulkner said the past isn’t even past,” Willie muses, “he must have been thinking about Richmond in general and my own tangled life in particular. Everywhere I go, history jumps out of the bushes and nips at my heels.”
|Klan march several blocks from Virginia State Capitol, circa 1925|
Have I said I’ll probly read the other six Willie Black tales? Either way, I’m removing the “probly,” and letting the rest stand.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]