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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: 'Think of a Number'

By John Verdon
July 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-58892-0

Gurney is one of those ultimate tough-guy cops who, when retired, tries to lead a quiet life. He has moved to the quiet countryside from the big city to please his wife. He took an art class with her and is developing a growing reputation recreating mug shots of serial killers that reflect what he sees in their faces. It's a little too close to the life he once led, his wife notes.

Madeline has a point. The minute a college classmate contacts him after decades of silence with a poisoned pen puzzle, Gurney's intrigued. Too bad his easily picqued interest may cost either or both he and his wife their lives before the end of John Verdon's debut thriller.

From the letter writer knowing what number the intended victim, a successful spiritual lifestyle guru, will choose to the Gurneys figuring out the signatory refers to the hard place in the original spot of being between a rock and a hard place, Verdon shows just how easy it is for his protagonist to slip back into his analytical way of looking at life. Solving the puzzle is what makes this cop tick. And this villian knows how to be clever and tricky.

When murder occurs, with clues that lead virtually nowhere, Gurney's even more intrigued. So perhaps it's just as well that a politically ambitious district attorney hires him to help with the investigation.

This is where Think of a Number jumps into high gear. Although Verdon's story has been smooth in setting up everything, the pace has been that of a more controlled procedural whodunit rather than the usual high-octane, all-action thriller that is more prevalent these days. Verdon, however, is terrific at giving both kinds of reader substantial entertainment. The chase to find a cold-blooded, calculating killer with an enormous grudge fires on all cylinders.

But Verdon also has ideas for readers who like multi-layered fiction that is about characters as much as action. The two sides of a personality is one theme that Gurney wrestles with. The lifestyle guru, for example, talks about the difference between the person everyone thinks they are and the person everyone else sees. Gurney's art reflects the two sides of the quiet neighbors who turn out to be the Gacys and Dahmers of the world. These ideas play into the revelations about the killer.

This idea plays right into something else Gurney is told, that life is meant to be lived with others, that life's meaning is to be close to others. Gurney's father was the opposite of a sociable, family man, and perhaps that left Gurney detached enough to make him the great cop he was. And boy, does the reader know what a great cop Gurney was. His ability to crack the hard cases is referred to multiple times. Although it's irritating to keep reading that Gurney was the best of the best, Verdon does a good job of bringing a retired cop into an active murder investigation. Verdon also is very good at describing police procedure and a detective's life, both on the job and retired.

At the story's conclusion, Verdon does a great job of bringing together the ideas about Gurney's character and outlook on life with how the case plays out. He does this in such a way that Gurney would be a character worth checking in on again.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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