Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sacrifice Fly

It’s not often I discover a new author because he asked for the shirt off my back. Happened exactly once, at the bar during this year’s Cleveland Bouchercon. Ordering my drink and I hear, “I want that shirt.” Okay, he didn’t actually want mine; he wanted one exactly like it. (The shirt is question is a tasteful black tee shirt, with WWASD stitched over the left breast, and “What Would Al Swearengen Do?” on the back, a Christmas gift from The Beloved Spouse several years ago.)

Turns out the guy’s name is Tim O’Mara, a New York schoolteacher with a book due out right after the conference. Tim’s a nice guy, we’re both seamheads, and a pleasant conversation ensued, during which we exchanged cards. I then went home and placed his book on the list with the other hundred or so I’d like to read. Good luck.

Couple of weeks later I noticed the book (Sacrifice Fly) getting some love on a blog I frequent. Another few weeks down the road I saw a brief piece by Tim in the Criminal Element blog that was intriguing enough I bumped Sacrifice Fly up the list and bought a copy.

Well done, me.

Sacrifice Fly is the story of former cop and current schoolteacher Raymond Donne. Donne pulled a few strings to get student Frankie Rivas into the local Catholic high school on a baseball scholarship, but the kid can’t go unless he graduates middle school, and he can’t graduate middle school unless he starts showing up, which he hasn’t done for several days. Donne takes it upon himself to get Frankie tightened up and discovers he’s no longer staying with his grandmother, but with his father, who can charitably be described as a ne’er-do-well. Donne follows up and finds Frankie’s father dead and Frankie and his younger sister in the wind.

Sacrifice Fly does so many things well, it’s hard to know where to start. Donne left the police force after a serious injury. He doesn’t miss it—normally—but searching for Frankie draws him so close to Job he can’t help crossing the line. His internal debates always ring true, and O’Mara has done us the courtesy of not making Donne fight the demons of alcohol or drug abuse. He’s a guy, like any guy, who wants to do the right thing. He also has some skills and experience that will serve him well as he treads a little farther over the line with each episode.

The supporting cast is introduced and used judiciously and to good effect. There are quite a few characters, all so well delineated you’ll have no trouble keeping them straight. They also have a convenient combination of skill sets, but not so convenient they feel like cut-outs. It’s more a matter of Donne knowing a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. His job is knowing who to call for what, and when.

Most of the story takes place in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which is a nice change from the general “New York = Manhattan” vibe too many books put out. It’s a neighborhood—true, a changing one—but the people care about it and each other without becoming mawkish.

The plot is paced and organized perfectly. O’Mara understands suspense is the sense that something is going to happen, and knows how long to make you wait before the law of diminishing return kicks in. No outrageous surprises complicate things, but there are plenty of complications. Nothing that doesn’t make sense, but there are things you have to wonder about until the reveal makes them seem inevitable. Everything comes to make sense and he never hurries. Many writers never learn to do either.

The dialog sounds like people talking, especially when Donne is talking to other men. This must be harder to do than people think, because hardly anyone does it well. More straightforward than George V. Higgins, O’Mara’s dialog still creates the feeling you’re eavesdropping on a conversation, not reading a speech.

This is a lot longer than my standard review, frankly, because Sacrifice Fly delivered a lot more than I expected. I have high expectations for books written by authors whose work I already know, and who have receive a lot of acclaim, not for guys I meet in bars. Maybe I need to spend more time in bars. O’Mara is working on another book. I’ll read it, too.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Are there more good books being written than ever before?

Dana King said...

I don't know about "ever before," but I sure read a lot of good books last year, and the early indications are 2013 will be another prime year.