Friday, July 23, 2010

Think of a Number by John Verdon

When he was still on the force, homicide investigator David Gurney was featured in New York magazine as an NYPD "Super Detective."  He'd brought down several infamous serial killers (including Peter Possum Piggert, an Oedipal killer if ever there was one, who at the age of fifteen killed his father, replaced him as his mother's consort, then fifteen years later killed his mother and replaced her with the two daughters they'd had together) and earned a reputation as the department's top homicide cop.  He'd developed his innate facility with puzzles and brain-teasers as a tool to help him get inside the mind of the psychopaths he hunted.

Recently retired, David Gurney leads an enviable life.  He's only forty-seven, lives in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of upstate New York with his beautiful wife Madeleine, and since his retirement has achieved unexpected success as an artist (he uses a computer program to enhance mug shots of serial killers, drawing out their inner selves to create disturbing and evocative portraits...quite the hit with the edgy-artsy set).  So why does he sometimes feel a kind of unease, one that he can't quite express but which simmers just below the calm surface of his apparent well-being?  Perhaps because Madeleine is inexplicably jealous of his relationship with the gallery owner who represents him?  Perhaps because of the uncomfortable relationship he has with Kyle, the twenty-four year old son from his first marriage?  Too much unfinished business in his life?  Or maybe he just misses the thrill of the chase.

Now, whatever the reason for his uneasiness, although his superego is telling him "no, no, no," and however reluctant he thinks he is, he jumps at the opportunity to get back in the game when contacted by an old college acquaintance who's having a bit of a situation.  Mark Mellery, whom Gurney hasn't seen in over twenty years, seems to have much fonder and deeper memories of Gurney--who he calls "Davey," much to Gurney's chagrin--than Gurney does of him.  Mellery is a recovering alcoholic who turned his life around to become a New Age self-help guru.  Author of two bestselling books and founder of the Mellery Institute for Spiritual Renewal (which is exactly what it sounds like), Mellery received a strange, disturbing communication, in verse, which said that the writer knew what he had done and asked him to think of a number.  After thinking of the number 658 Mellery then opened the small, sealed envelope enclosed with the verse, and found his number there.

The as-yet-unidentified psychopath has already set the wheels in motion, however, and before Gurney's had a chance really to begin working out the puzzle, Mellery is dead.  The staging of evidence at the murder scene adds new layers to the puzzle, and the investigation's barely begun when other murders showing the same MO begin popping up.

David Gurney is a good character, with the potential, some day, to be an even better one.  Likewise, Think of a Number is a good first novel, by an author who will certainly become better as he becomes more comfortable with his craft.  In this first effort, although the mystery is a really good and clever one, the story plods along at times, slowed down more than the reader would like by the main character's navel-gazing and hand-wringing.  The interplay between David Gurney and Madeleine, and, more especially, between Gurney and the local cops forced to work with him by an ambitious DA they're none too fond of, is spot-on.  A little more of that, a little more of the amazing puzzle solving, and a little less of the introspection, and you've got a true winner.







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