Fresh Meat: Crooked Numbers by Tim O’Mara

Crooked Numbers by Tim O'MaraCrooked Numbers by Tim O'Mara is the second mystery featuring former NYPD cop turned Brooklyn teacher Raymond Donne (available October 15, 2013).

A former officer and a gentle man.

Tim O’Mara hit what many declared a long ball with his debut novel, Sacrifice Fly.  He might be on a streak given his second, Crooked Numbers. Protagonist Raymond Donne displays an identifiable swing—damaged cop turned schoolteacher can’t help but get involved when a former student dies—backed by teammates who include a newspaper reporter, an uncle who is head of detectives for the NYPD, and the bar buddy who serves as a go-to guy for IT and research needs. As in his debut, O’Mara also includes a helpful kid, the dead one’s good mom suffering through loss, and the glorious and squalid backdrop that is New York City.

In the new book, Donne has been named as Dean of Students at the private school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he taught during Sacrifice Fly. When he once more looks into the death of a former student, this time at the behest of the dead boy’s mother, the trail leads west. O’Mara describes the journey from what used to be one distinct city to another this way:

If you look at the New York City subway map, you’ll see that if you want to get from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, all you have to do is jump on the L train, transfer at Eighth Avenue to the C, and you’ll be there in only forty-five minutes. Maybe less. Five miles. Geographically.

Demographically, the Upper West Side might as well be on the other side of the world. It is an area where real estate is valued by the square foot, not by how many people you can squeeze into a two-bedroom apartment. Doctors and lawyers are your neighbors, not professionals you go to on really bad days. In this part of the city, the first sign of spring is not robins, but women on cell phones suddenly walking alongside their own babies’ strollers, as women whose skin is a few shades darker push their children for them.

Mirroring the second book’s expanded geographic range, Raymond Donne has risen through the ranks to be named Dean of Students. This job switch means he is no longer tied to a class schedule or to a specific group of students. Absent the tight routine that is the classroom teacher’s day, Ray can more believably interrupt his schedule to investigate a boy’s murder. As well, his new post provides opportunities for scenes with an array of students. Certain of those interactions underscore how one can never take all of the cop out of the current dean:

I looked up at the kid. All of fifteen years old, and the only way he could see out of this situation was violence. His mother just sat there, blank-faced and helpless. The thought of Jerome Dexter in this school made my stomach hurt.

There was a look in Jerome’s eyes that I had seen more times than I could count. The look of someone whose fear is ready to take him places he doesn’t understand. Another time, I might have found myself feeling sorry for the kid. Right now, I didn’t want an angry wannabe gangbanger in my school.  It was time to play hardball.

Yet Ray Donne is a Nice Cop who notes that he never so much as drew his gun during his brief tenure in Blue. Nonfiction accounts written by current and former New York cops including Edward Conlon and Paul Bacon express how little of policing has anything to do with one’s firearm. Most of it has to do with adopting the right attitude, which includes figuring out what the other person wants and why, and talking that person into giving you what you need. 

One person who talks Ray into giving her what she wants better than the other way around is love interest and newspaper reporter Allison Rogers. Her work, like his, requires persistence and interviewing skills akin to a cop’s, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that she and Ray express their affection the way Ray’s police officer uncle does. Whether to convey feelings hearty or playful, they all slap.  

For author O’Mara, who has family in The Life, that gesture may carry the ring of truth. Other truths that appear alongside, however, better enliven the moderately suspenseful plot. This interchange, between Ray Donne, his Uncle Ray, and his uncle’s uniformed driver, takes place as Ray fears they are too late to intervene on behalf of one of his students.  He says,

“I guess we should have had this idea half an hour ago.”

“Give it time, Nephew.” [Uncle Ray] slapped my left leg twice. Hard. “You seem to have forgotten one of the first lessons of law enforcement.”

“And what is that, Uncle Ray?” I could hear the pain in my voice.

“Uncle Ray now slapped the back of his driver’s seat. “Tell him, Smitty.”

Smitty cleared his throat, but again did not turn around. “Half of this job is waiting around for shit to happen.”

“And the other half?” Uncle Ray prompted.

“The other half is cleaning up the shit,” Smitty concluded. “Sir.”

“And so we wait.” Uncle Ray lowered his window and let some of the cigar smoke out.

For ardent fans who may have already raced through Crooked Numbers, the wait for O’Mara’s third book might seem to take half a lifetime.  They might take a tip from Uncle Ray, who knows how to wait, and pick up some cigars.


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Kate Lincoln writes crime fiction informed by her years in clinical medicine and as a homeopath and EMT, most of which is set in New Jersey horse country called the Somerset Hills.

See all of Kate Lincoln’s posts for Criminal Element.

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