Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On My Shelf: Think of a Number (Review)

Think of a Number | John Verdon | Crown | 432 pages | $22.00

Have you ever played audience to an amateur magician? Did he have you pick a card from a deck? Or maybe he asked you think of a number and then led you through a math problem. It's almost as though he read your mind. The mind is a private place—and it's unsettling when others appear to find their way in uninvited. There are no parlor tricks in John Verdon's literary debut with Think of a Number. Nope, no parlor tricks. Just a killer who thinks he's rather clever.

Readers are invited to ride along as retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney is recruited to help a former college buddy get to the bottom of a series of disturbing notes. Much to the dismay of Gurney's wife Madeline, It seems to be just the thing he's waiting for. Gurney will follow a trail of murder and mayhem to a source that is really hidden in plain sight. Seriously, there's a reason things don't quite add up, and if readers follow their instincts as Gurney does, the killer's identity will be less of a surprise than his motives. Unsurprised in this instance, is not meant to suggest disappointment, but really a feeling, of "yeah, that makes sense."

Much of the dialogue in the book is between tough guy cops who play nicely into the killer's taunts:
I ran through the snow.
Fool, look high and low
Ask where did I go.
You scum of the earth,
here witness my borth:
Revenge is reborn
for children who mourn,
for all the forlorn.
Gurney spends much of the novel in semi-showdowns with others in the departments he is assisting. He has a history of catching killers, and the bar has been set high for him to perform, even if he's just moonlighting. There is a bit of resentment that comes through from the others regarding his involvement that cheapens the experience because it feels scripted. While Verdon crafts a playful killer, he misses the nuances of human relationships.

This last point is really a shame because the sub-story of the book is the relationship between Gurney and his wife. Verdon paints a picture of a typical retired detective who can't let his career go, and of a wife who is frustrated by the way "their" retirement is going. But you get a glimpse of a deeper connection—particularly after learning that their marriage has survived the death of their four year old son. But Gurney gets involved with his buddy's problems, his wife becomes a shadow in the book, and the depth of their relationship and its impact on Gurney and his decisions are superficial.

Gurney's history makes him an interesting character to watch if Vernon decides to revive him. The book read quickly and might be a good companion for a commuter. And, at the very least, particularly in the age of Facebook, you may think twice when that old college friend comes calling.

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