The Private Eye novel is a purely American invention, and was long the backbone of U.S. mystery writing. The form waxes and wanes – at the moment pure private eyes are almost being co-opted by the reluctant private eye or the private eye who is also something else, like Tim O’Mara’s guy, who is a teacher.
Ray Donne is a teacher who used to be a cop, with an uncle very high up in the police force who makes it more likely that Ray will not only sometimes get inside information but also a bit of a pass. He dates a reporter, which is an occasional conflict with what Ray knows but can’t tell, but all in all Ray is a genuinely good guy who often finds himself at the heart of a problem.
In this novel, an old buddy, Ricky, another ex-cop, calls Ray out of the blue in the middle of the night “to talk”; Ricky ends up shot and killed while Ray escapes with a concussion. It makes him pretty invested in finding out what’s going on. This is a complex novel that finds Ray moonlighting for an old frenemy, Jack Knight, who Ricky had been working for before he was killed.
O’Mara takes the reader on a trail that includes Ricky’s grief-shattered brother, a missing rich girl, an uncle who is reminding Ray constantly to stay out of trouble, and a number of near misses and scrapes, though Ray still manages to buy a new suit, take his girlfriend to a fancy party, and avoid calling his mother. Ray Donne is truly an old school character – he’s basically a working stiff who has a strong sense of both decency and what’s right. When he’s surrounded by various forms of corruption and actual immorality, Ray knows how to behave, even if it’s not always the easiest path.
Like the old “Andy Griffith Show” where the sensible Andy was the calm center of the action, so it is with Ray. He may be surrounded by chaotic actions and scary consequences, but he’s not going to be done in by it, even when someone takes a shot at him (more than once in this novel).
The contemporary twist O’Mara brings to his brisk and capable storytelling is his New York City setting, the details of school teaching and administration, and the memorable web of friends and characters that surround Ray. This is a wonderful series that seems to be ageing well, and I hope there are many more installments.