I started John Verdon's debut thriller, Think of a Number, and, by page 35, I was thinking, this writing is a little dense for me. And, even after finishing it, I still think it could have been tightened. But, the complicated thought processes are part of the main character, Dave Gurney, and before long, Dave had captured my attention. This may be thriller, and a complicated puzzle, but Dave Gurney is the heart of Think of a Number. If you like Gurney, you'll find this novel irresistible.
Gurney has recently retired from the NYPD at the age of 47. But, his whole life was wrapped up in his career as a successful homicide detective, and he can't put that behind him. Even his new hobby involves killers. Gurney paints portraits of murderers. His intense focus on murder is just one of the causes of tension between Gurney and his wife, Madeleine. The two have drifted apart, but Madeleine is very astute at gauging Dave's reaction to everything from her comments to phone calls.
But, no one could have guessed the result of a phone call from an old college acquaintance. Mark Mellery irritated Gurney by claiming a friendship they hadn't really had when he shows up asking for help. He's received odd letters, and they seem threatening, but Mellery doesn't want to call the police and jeopardize his position as director of an institute. Instead he brings the letters to Gurney, letters that started by saying, "Think of a number." And, then, when the writer correctly guessed Mellery's number, the writer said, see how well I know you. Now, send me money. While Gurney treated it as an intriguing puzzle, he knew the letters that continued to come were threatening, but he couldn't convince Mellery to go to the police. And, then it was too late.
The call saying Mellery had been killed brought the retired homicide detective into a complicated puzzle that continued to grow worse. Gurney agreed to work for the local D.A. as a special consultant, but he didn't know how many more murders there would be; murders that seemed impossible. And, each time, taunting letters preceded the death.
Think of a Number is a complicated, enjoyable puzzle for any reader who enjoys following the clues. First, get past the writing, which seems complicated, but the book deals with a complicated man, not so much the killer but the investigator. Here's just one passage that illustrates what I mean by dense writing. "It wasn't that he disagreed with her, at least not aesthetically, maybe not at all, but the difficult personal fact for him was that his natural inclinations tilted him inward in a variety of ways, with the result that, left to his own devices, he spent more time in the consideration of action than in action, more time in his head than in the world. That had never been a problem in his profession; in truth, it was the very thing that seemed to make him so good at it." At the same time, that passage shows the kind of character we're observing. Gurney is a complicated man who fears failure, and knows his wife understands him better than anyone. At the same time, he fears they've grown apart. But, he can't help himself when he grows fascinated by the lure of an intriguing murder case.
I did have one other issue with this book, and perhaps it's a problem for a first-time author. The police never investigated the person who seemed to be an obvious suspect. Perhaps, as a first-time author, Verdon didn't want to point at the villain. As a long-time reader of crime fiction, I looked at the person precisely because the police didn't.
Enjoy Think of a Number as a thriller about a serial killer. But, it's also a story about a complicated man. And, it's a story of a marriage. John Verdon's debut novel is a successful thriller. But, for me, the complexity of relationships gives the book its depth, and the complicated man at the heart of the mystery is its greatest puzzle.
Think of a Number by John Verdon. Crown Publishing Group, ©2010. ISBN 9780307588920 (hardcover), 432p.
FTC Full Disclosure - Verdon's publicist sent me the book as part of a blog tour.