THINK OF A NUMBER is John Verdon’s first novel, but you’d never know it by reading this book. It’s one of the best debuts I’ve read in a while.
Dave Gurney is a celebrated NYPD homicide detective who has retired with his wife to a peaceful existence in upstate New York. Both of them are haunted by a tragedy in their past, which is one reason Dave is willing to take on the solving of a new mystery. An old college acquaintance of his has become a sort of New Age guru, and he turns to Dave for help when he begins receiving some vague but threatening messages. Dave advises his friend to go to the police but investigates on his own anyway, and the situation turns much more serious when the old friend winds up dead.
That’s just the first of multiple murders. Dave continues to be involved in the case as an unofficial consultant to the several different law enforcement agencies that become involved. The plot twists and twists, with elements that are reminiscent of the “impossible crime” sort of mystery that John Dickson Carr practiced so well, such as the footprints of the killer leading away from a victim, through a field of snow, only to stop abruptly with nowhere that the killer could have gone.
Another “impossible crime” angle gives the book its title. In the threatening notes sent to the first victim, Dave’s old college friend, the killer asks him to think of a number at random between one and a thousand. The guy does, then opens the second, smaller envelope that came with the message, and inside it is the number he thought of.
I admit, I was baffled by the whole thing, and usually I’m pretty good at figuring out plots. After Dave solves the crimes, the summation he gives at the end of the book is much like something from the Golden Age of Detection, going on for a number of pages and requiring the reader to pay close attention. As far as I can tell, Verdon plays fair. The clues are all there if you’re alert enough to catch them. (“Alert” and “me” don’t go together very well these days.) It’s not all Golden Age stuff, though. There are police procedural elements, serial killer thriller elements, and even echoes of literary fiction, with some elegant writing and a lot of back-story and character development. It’s an odd mix, but it works very well.
I suspect this may be the first of a series. Fine by me if it is. THINK OF A NUMBER is a little longer than I like and the pace is a tad slow now and then, but Dave Gurney is a fine protagonist and the complex plot really drew me in. I enjoyed the book a lot and highly recommend it.
JOHN O’HARA: STORIES Edited by Charles McGrath
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