Think of a Number
Crown, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
ohn Verdon's intricate, often lyrical debut mystery,
Think of a Number
, has well-earned endorsements from top thriller writers on its front cover. David Baldacci declares '
' and Nelson DeMille '
'; Tess Gerritsen calls it '
Spectacular and mind-bending
'; Faye Kellerman announces '
A stunning debut
'; and John Lescroart enthuses '
One of the best thrillers I've read.
' They're all right.
he lead is officially retired (but still very committed to crimefighting) homicide investigator Dave Gurney, whose '
linear, logical mind
' made him NYPD's '
most decorated detective
'. He is now forty-seven. On his retirement, Dave and his wife Madeleine bought a nineteenth century farmhouse in the Delaware County hills. Madeleine loves the country life but Dave has issues. He has still not come to terms with '
the black hole whose terrible gravity had twisted their relationship
' fifteen years before, and has little communication with Kyle, his adult son from a first marriage. And he has taken up as a hobby an art project involving the '
creatively doctored photographs
' of serial killers. His show,
Murderers and the Man who Caught Them
, is being featured in an Ithaca art gallery. Madeleine is not enthusiastic, probably because of attractive art dealer Sonya Reynolds' obvious interest in her husband.
ave is approached by a college classmate, Mark Mellery, about threatening communications - and '
a weird puzzle
'. Mark, who was once '
a blackout drinker
', is now a published author who runs the
Institute for Spiritual Renewal
. The first letter told him to think of any number (up to 1,000) and then to open an envelope, in which he found that very number, 658. The sender claimed omniscience about Mellery's life. After this first communication, he received threatening poems, including '
What you took you will give / when you get what you gave.
' Though Dave presses Mellery to contact the police, he refuses, concerned about the effect of an official investigation on institute clients. They both wonder how the sender could possibly have known the number that would come to Mark's mind. While Dave pursues the puzzle, a murderer strikes.
he scene of the crime is baffling - a locked room scenario that happens to be outdoors. It demands the out-of-the-box thinking at which Dave excels. He had worked with lead investigator, Jack Hardwick, before. Soon, he's hired by ambitious DA Sheridan Kline as a consultant. Madeleine complains that her husband's '
brain is so tied up with murder and mayhem and blood and monsters and liars and psychopaths, there's simply nothing left for anything else.
' Subtle messages left at the scene reveal a '
smart, ruthless nutcase who wants to do battle with the police
', but he has a worthy opponent in Gurney. A link is found to a Bronx homicide of another alcoholic and more victims follow, including a police officer.
f course, Dave Gurney does ultimately solve all the puzzles - including that of the killer's identity and the past events that started the rampage - but takes unseemly risks along the way. He reflects that '
the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind
'. The mystery is brilliantly executed, but I also enjoyed Verdon's character portrayals, particularly the very real relationship between husband and wife, filled as much with minor irritations and accommodations as they adjust to his retirement as with '
acceptance and love
'. If you read only one thriller this year, make it
Think of a Number
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