In Virginia, as throughout the South, relatives are expected to keep their kinfolks’ graves tidy.
With a nod to that cultural tradition, Richmonder Howard Owen launches “Evergreen” (The Permanent Press, $29.95, 254 pages), his 18th novel and the eighth in his series featuring Willie Black, the night police reporter for Richmond’s daily newspaper.
Second cousin Richard Slade summons Willie to VCU Medical Center, where Richard’s mother, Philomena, has a deathbed request for Willie: Maintain the grave of his father, Artie Lee, a man Willie barely remembers.
Artie, who was 23, apparently died in a car crash in 1961. Willie wants details; when he contacts two of his dad’s old friends, both seem reluctant to share. But a tip from a news source leads him to an explosion that rocked a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1960.
Owen, a former deputy managing editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch who retired as editor of the editorial page at The Free Lance–Star, fills the series with authenticity.
That’s but one of his talents. His characters — especially Willie — are intelligently imagined and rendered. His prose marks the place where toughness and tenderness meet. And his storytelling never falters.
Noir for the discriminating reader, “Evergreen” represents another triumph for Owen, one that showcases his ability to write a thumping good read that also addresses profound questions of race and bigotry, right and wrong.
In clumsy hands, crime fiction that sets out to send a message as well as entertain can become tedious. But in Julia Keller’s, it can take flight.
And it soars in “The Cold Way Home” (Minotaur, $27.99, 320 pages), the eighth novel in her series featuring prosecutor-turned-private-investigator Belfa “Bell” Elkins of Acker’s Gap, a declining town in fictional Raythune County, W.Va.
Bell and her partners — former Sheriff Nick Fogelsong and former Deputy Jake Oakes — agree to look for a runaway teenager. But as she explores the ruins of Wellwood — once a hospital for the mentally ill poor — what Bell instead finds is the body of Darla Gilley, a woman in her late 50s.
Sixty years ago, another slaying took place at the site — that of Bessie Gilley, Darla’s grandmother and a Wellwood employee. As Bell and her colleagues investigate, they learn that Wellwood, like many similar places, not only warehoused patients but also subjected them to reprehensible practices, such as lobotomies.
Keller, as always, explores the personal lives of her characters and examines the plight of her native state as she tells a powerful tale. What results is a troubling and timely read in which she sears the arrogance and ignorance that led misguided medical professionals to embrace shameful and inhumane methods.
Delivered with Keller’s trademark eloquence and sense of morality — and a stunning twist — “The Cold Way Home” exemplifies literary worth.
Can a professional organizer double as an amateur sleuth?
Meet Emily Harlow, a devotee of Marie Kondo’s less-is-more philosophy and the primary character in Hallie Ephron’s “Careful What You Wish For” (William Morrow, $26.99, 304 pages).
Emily, perhaps motivated by her attorney husband Frank’s hoarding habit, has partnered with Becca Jain to found Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers in the Boston area.
The women have two new clients: elderly widow Ruth Murphy, whose husband, Charles, was a dedicated collector who had a packed house and a storage unit; and Quinn Newell, the wife of auction enthusiast Wallace. The difference: Ruth wants Charles’ stuff gone; Quinn hires Clutter Kickers to rid herself of her own possessions, which Wallace has banned from his mansion into its garage.
During a prosecco-soaked conversation, Quinn and Emily joke about life without their husbands. So it’s no surprise when a body identified as Wallace’s is discovered. But the location — Charles Murphy’s storage unit — shocks. And several connections and events lead the cops directly to Emily.
Ephron, the daughter of Hollywood screenwriters and a sister to writers Amy, Delia and Nora, is the author of six previous mysteries, each of which has displayed her originality and earned acclaim.
Her latest continues the pattern, with an amiable protagonist in Emily, a twisty plot, a breezy pace and a finely balanced assortment of genuine clues and red herrings.
A tidy tale of death and deception, “Careful What You Wish For” offers multiple pleasures — and a few warnings.