5 stars out of 5
When author Scott Mackey asked if I'd be willing to read this book (and the follow-up, Courage Resurrected) in exchange for reviews, I did what I always do with such requests: Held off responding. My worst nightmare, you see, is having to give a less-than-favorable review (which more often than not happens as a result of less-than-impeccable grammar and punctuation). But being a writer (albeit strictly nonfiction) and professional copy editor myself, neither am I willing to pull any punches. After I'd read the description half a dozen or so times, though, it sounded right up my alley and I said to myself (and the author) what the heck - bring 'em on. Now that I've plowed through this one almost nonstop, I assure you my sleep has been quite peaceful.
At the heart of it all is Ray Courage, retired from college professorial duties in Sacramento, California. He lost his beloved wife in an accident years ago, their daughter is on her own and he's decided on a second career as a private investigator. Soon after he hangs out his shingle, he gets a visit from former main squeeze Jill Stroud (the two were together for a couple of years after Ray's wife died). Now, she's asking Ray to do some sleuthing on behalf of her father, filthy rich investment broker Lionel. Seeing Jill again brings back some good memories, and more to the point, Ray's hope, however faint, of reconnecting with his former love - so he somewhat reluctantly agrees.
Something isn't quite right with Daddy, Jill explains, adding that the man - not known for his warm fuzzy demeanor - won't be happy that she, nor Ray, is meddling in his affairs. She was right on the money, but Ray ends up determined to keep digging despite Daddy's hostility and warnings to back off. When one person close to Daddy is murdered, Ray decides to keep plugging away. When a second body turns up, his determination to see it through intensifies (bolstered by an intensifying re-relationship with Jill). There are plenty of starts, stops, twists and turns throughout, and while I admit to having an inkling of whodunit about three-quarters of the way through, the ending was a bit of a surprise.
As I read, I kept getting flashbacks of sorts, finally realizing that Ray (and his former student and P.I. buddy Rubia) remind me of characters from somewhere else. Finally, I got my "aha" moment: It's Bernie Rhodenbarr, the Manhattan bookstore owner and occasional thief and his buddy Carolyn; they're impossible not to love in Lawrence Block's wonderful The Burglar Who series (I've devoured every single one). Unlike Bernie, Ray doesn't have sticky fingers (as far as I can tell, he's honest as the day is long) and Rubia and Carolyn don't share the same sexual preferences, but the personalities and the author's style of writing - including touches of humor here and there - seem quite similar.
BTW, for those who want to start at the beginning, there's an 85-page short story titled "Courage Begins: A Ray Courage Mystery Novella" that kicks off this series. It's not a prerequisite to this full novel, which stands alone just fine, thank you very much, but since the author was kind enough to send it to me, I zipped through it before moving to the main attraction. It's well done and provides a good introduction to the character, who is undertaking an "internship" before launching his own P.I. firm, so you may want to give it a go first. The only question I had when I finished was how a college professor with his background would ever, in a million years, come up with the notion of becoming an investigator. Well guess what? The answer turned up in this book.
The ending of this one also left the door open to plenty of possibilities for Ray's new career, too, so now I'm off and running toward Courage Resurrected. Stay tuned!
Courage Matters by Scott Mackey (Big Hound Publishing, February 2014); 233 pp.