Review of "Think of a Number," a thriller by John Verdon
THINK OF A NUMBER
By John Verdon
Crown. 418 pp. $22
In "The Simple Art of Murder," his cornerstone essay on detective fiction, Raymond Chandler famously drew a line in the sand between the American "hard-boiled" school of Dashiell Hammett and the more genteel traditions of writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Hammett and his followers, Chandler wrote, "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish."
John Verdon manages to have it both ways in "Think of a Number," his inventive and entertaining first thriller. The hard-edged characters and gritty plot recall Chandler's "mean streets," but the ornate puzzles laid before Verdon's detective might have challenged the "little grey cells" of Hercule Poirot. Verdon appears to take a certain fiendish glee in his brainteasers. At one stage he gives us a trail of footprints that comes to an inexplicable stop in the middle of nowhere: "It was as if the killer had walked purposefully to this spot, stood about shifting from foot to foot for a few minutes, perhaps waiting for someone or something, and then . . . evaporated." There are also secret messages written in skin oil, cunningly concealed gunshot wounds, and a killer who delivers his threats in enigmatic verse.
Verdon uses his best trick to get the plot rolling. When a "spiritual renewal" counselor named Mark Mellery finds himself at the center of a "weird puzzle," he seeks help from his old college friend Dave Gurney, a retired homicide detective living nearby in the rural Catskills. Mellery has received a disturbing letter filled with oblique references to a potentially ruinous episode from his drunken past. The anonymous correspondent warns that Mellery's day of reckoning is at hand, and goes on to prove his bona fides with a startling mind game. He tells Mellery to think of a three-digit number -- "the first number that comes to your mind" -- before opening a small sealed envelope that was included with the letter. Inside is the number Mellery selected. "Now," boasts the mysterious tormentor, "see how well I know your secrets."
Gurney, a "detective of legend," agrees to investigate the problem as a favor to his friend. More threats bubble to the surface, followed in turn by a series of grotesque and baffling murders. Gurney soon finds himself at the center of a full-blown manhunt, tracking a serial killer who is apparently able to read the minds of his victims.
Verdon provides plenty of the flashy forensics that readers have come to expect in a modern thriller, but he also does a good job of fleshing out the human side of police work, highlighting Gurney's prickly relationship with a local cop who resents the intrusion of the "most revered homicide detective in the history of the NYPD." The author also takes an unsparing look at tensions that arise in Gurney's marriage, already frayed by the pressures of his long career on the force. "David, what is the matter with you?" his wife asks as he plunges headlong into the investigation. "Do you just keep running at the bullets? Running at the bullets? Until one goes through your head? Is that it? Is that the pathetic plan for the rest of our lives together?"
Verdon stumbles now and then in his efforts to fuse the lightning pace of a thriller with the more stately charms of an old-fashioned mystery. The action is parsed into short, fast-moving chapters, but the events at hand don't always fit. A lengthy scene at police headquarters gets chopped into four segments, more or less indiscriminately, like sausage links. At the same time, Verdon spends too long remarking on the weather, especially during the book's leisurely opening pages, and some readers may find their patience wearing thin.
If the book starts slowly, however, it finishes strong. As soon as Gurney arrives at the first crime scene, a gripping game of cat-and-mouse begins. Verdon plays fair with the reader, crafting the puzzles with elaborate care and dangling the clues in plain sight. When he finally springs the solution to the "think of a number" conundrum, you'll never see it coming -- but all the numbers add up.
Stashower's most recent book is "The Beautiful Cigar Girl."