Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dead Red by Tim O'Mara

Want to start a book with a bang? Blow the head off the man sitting a foot from the protagonist in the first sentence. The reader doesn’t know why they’re there, where they are, or how badly the star is hurt. (One can assume he’s not dead, as the book is written in the first person, and it’s not Sunset Boulevard.)

So begins Tim O’Mara’s third Raymond Donne mystery, Dead Red. Donne is a
schoolteacher in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with a gift for finding
himself in bad situations. Normally amateur sleuths drive me up the wall, but Donne isn’t really an amateur: he’s a retired cop who had to leave the force early after a fall ruined his knees. He’s not all that highly thought of by most of the cops still on the job because he’s damaged goods in their eyes, but he does have a little juice: his uncle and namesake is chief of police. Uncle Ray doesn’t like his nephew fooling around in police business. He doesn’t want him dead, either. So Ray gets slack you or I would not. Not too much—O’Mara has more respect for his readers’ intelligence than to resort to such lazy writing—enough to get by.

It’s Ricky Torres who dies in Sentence One. He’s a friend of Ray’s, a former cop who did a tour in Iraq and couldn’t quite get into the swing of things back in the world. Ricky’s been living with his mother and driving cab for his cousin the past six months when he calls Ray in the middle of the night to ask if they can get together right now; Ricky thinks he made a big mistake. How big? Big enough to get him killed before he can tell Ray, which is about as big as mistakes get.

Matters are complicated by another retired cop, Jack Knight. He and Donne have history, little of it good, but Knight saved Donne’s life a while back, so there’s a debt. Knight is working as a private investigator and surprises Donne on his way home from the hospital with unnerving news: he’d been subbing work out to Ricky T, such as minor incident investigations for insurance companies—and, oh yeah—looking for the missing daughter of the biggest PR flack in New York.

There are more complications, all of which make sense after in time. The fact that Donne spends half the book recovering from a concussion makes him enough of an unreliable narrator to give the reader pause. He doesn’t remember everything that happened that night, and several later experiences are related while he’s trying not to throw up. As time goes on there are good reasons to believe Ricky’s death and the missing girl are related, but there is also the cache of guns Ricky’s brother has found. An old friend from Iraq, a girlfriend no one knew about, a pimp with a pit bull, and the overriding feeling that Lynch can’t be trusted keep all the pieces in motion.

Most of the series touchstones are here: Uncle Ray may be gruff and officious, but he loves his nephew; reporter girlfriend, Allison; the crew at the Line Up bar; and Edgar, computer savant, who lives to help Ray and is as unique a sidekick as is currently working in mystery fiction.

O’Mara’s matter-of-fact writing style moves the story along without drawing attention to itself, though it’s never bland. The banter among friends—both male and female—is authentic and entertaining. He also has a knack for knowing how much to describe: enough to let the reader’s imagination draw a picture of the person or scene, not so much things are slowed down. It’s the kind of writing that can make it easy for the reader to forget he’s reading, as the story seems at times to go directly to the brain without having to pass through the eyes.

The only thing missing from Dead Red is the usual school setting. It doesn’t hurt the book—those who enter the series here won’t think twice about it—but those who are already fans may notice. O’Mara is a teacher when he’s not writing, and the interplay between Donne and the kids in the other books makes him a unique series hero, as he balances a no-nonsense, results-oriented approach with genuine affection.

No big deal. Everyone needs their vacations. After how this one ended, Raymond Donne probably can’t wait for school to start again. I know I can’t.

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