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Bringing the mystery back to Berkeley

Owen Hill

By day, Owen Hill works at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, buying books and organizing the store’s well-regarded reading series.

At night, Hill returns to The Chandler Apartments, an old, once-elegant apartment complex on Dwight Way near the bookstore.

It’s a routine he’s kept for much of his 26-year tenure at Moe’s, only now it’s making Hill famous.

On January 20, 2010, the Los Angeles Times ran a glowing review of Hill’s second mystery series set in Berkeley. Titled The Incredible Double, the book features Clay Blackburn, a bisexual book scout who turns detective. It’s the second book to feature Blackburn. The first, which was published in 2002 by PM Press, was called The Chandler Apartments.

Is there anything biographical going on here?

The Los Angeles Times lauded The Incredible Double for its rich depiction of the streets and characters of Berkeley:

“The real power of the book comes in its evocation of Berkeley, which is, as anyone who’s spent much time there recognizes, a universe unto itself,” wrote David Ulin, the Times’ book editor.

“Among the novel’s supporting characters are a homeless man named Bruce, a sexually ambiguous ex-FBI agent and a cross-section of East Bay poseurs and left-behinds. “She was a bundle of clichés,” Clay thinks about one such character, “but again, I wasn’t noticing. Or maybe it’s that in Berkeley we live with a different set of clichés.” As for what these clichés are, Hill is merciless in his social satire. At a bookstore poetry reading — poetry is a major theme within the novel — he observes that “Leonard Cohen’s first album was, I swear, playing on a turntable next to the register. Berkeley.”

There are scenes in The Incredible Double set in Moe’s, Cesar’s on Shattuck, and even a kidnapping at the now-closed Elephant Pharmacy.

Chandler Apartments on Dwight and Telegraph

Owen is not from Berkeley – he grew up in Los Angeles, and worked in several bookstores before starting work at Moe’s in 1986. He has also published seven books of poetry.

The Bay Area is a rich setting for mysteries. For a list of other mysteries set around the bay, consult Golden Gate Mysteries, a list of 1,700 put together by Randal Brandt of the Bancroft Library.

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  • Owen Hill

    What a pleasant surprise–to see my name in the “paper” as I have my morning coffee. I really appreciate the support of my adopted hometown.

    all best to you, and to Berkeleyside.

    Owen