Think of Number
By John Verdon
Oh man, I really wanted to like this novel.
For a murder mystery novel it is compelling enough. And as debut novels go, John Verdon should be proud and I hope he does well with it and future books. I like the way this book was paced and never felt like it was dragging on. But Think Of A Number fails in a lot of fundamental ways. Here are a few:
My main problem with Think Like a Number is that Verdon sets up Dave Gurney, his main character, as the expert in hunting and catching psychopathic serial murderers. Think Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs. In Verdon's world, there simply isn't a cop alive better equipped to catch a killer than Dave Gurney. He's even a minor celebrity among cops on the Eastern Seaboard. Gurney's a retired cop that has lead the investigations against several high-profile serial killers. In Think Of A Number he gets dragged back into service when a series of strange notes lead to the death of a college friend. Once the crime scene is established and the investigation gets underway I assumed that Gurney was going to take the reader into the mind of the killer, tracing his motives and methods, each more cold and calculating than the first, revealing his madness a little at a time.... you know, like a good murder mystery.
The problem was that I had most things figured out long before Gurney and the cops. And on several occasions it was Gurney's wife, Madeleine, who tells him what I already knew. So much for celebrity expert in the field. My wife continuously tells me that I'm the least perceptive person in the world. I notice very little, and yet I seem to be solving a case a solid week in advance of these experts. That's inexcusable. These guys are supposed to be a professional crime unit. The reader and the retired cop's hippie wife are solving the crime faster than these chumps. Think of the lives that would have been saved if I had Kilgore Trout-ed into the book and taken over. Certainly Detective Sissek would not have perished. We could have spared Mrs. Sissek such a needless tragedy, coming only two weeks before the detective's retirement from the Wycherly Police Department. So much wasted time, fellas.
And that's another thing! Aside from Gurney and his wife, Verdon's characters seem to be merely caricatures of real people, cartoonish in their cliched existence. There's Detective Sissek, as mentioned above. He was only two weeks away from retirement, like I said. In the world of books, television and movies, all cops are within a month of retirement. Police Departments around the world should really address the problem of aging officers. Perhaps departments should give officers an inside job for their last month to avoid these all too common last month murders. Other characters include a clueless DA, a brown-nosing chief of police who insists that the murder follow a more conventional crime pattern, the requisite round peg in a square hole guy and the slightly racist but ultimately professional crime scene officer who nobody likes but everyone respects. Do police departments in America hire specifically for these particular quirks?
Another aspect in which Verdon fails is his sub-plots. He establishes several throughout the novel involving the death of his 9-year-old son, issues with his other son, on-going tension with his wife and a potential affair with an art gallery proprietor. Verdon either fails to develop these sub-plots and wraps them up clumsily in the last ten pages following the resolution of the primary story, leaves them completely unresolved, or, in one particularly galling instance involving a Gurney's burgeoning art career, forgets about it entirely. I have no problem with stories that follow a single trajectory. Writers need to know their limitations and if one story is all you can handle, fine. Do it, and do it well. Don't bite off more than you can chew. In this instance, Think Of A Number would have been better served without any sub-plots. The main plot was compelling enough to carry the reader, why bother with the other issues if you can't follow through?
And while we are on the subject of wrapping up a story, Gurney spends a lot of time toward the end of the book discussing the psychology of the killer and what was once a well-paced murder-mystery descends into a morass of psycho-babble that somehow renders his killer from perfectionist to a bumbling insane man simply by articulating his psychology. At no point previous to the killer's psychological profile did he ever make a mistake. Once we are presented with the full flower of his insanity, he becomes a complete moron. And finally, for the millionth time: If you are a killer, victory soliloquies always end badly. If committing the perfect murder is your business, shut up and do it. Never explain yourself. I can't believe I'm typing this in 2011. You'd think villains would have learned by now. I'm surprised the killer wasn't stroking his cat while divulging his secrets. The victory soliloquy is a classic blunder akin to starting a land war in Asia or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Don't do it!
Alas, Silence of the Lambs this is not. While I would like to wish John Verdon luck in his future writing (he really does have talent) if you are looking for a really good murder mystery and/or cop drama this summer, I will forever recommend Lush Life by Richard Price. This is perhaps the best crime drama I have read in recent years. It keeps you guessing and never disappoints. Something I really wish I could say for Think Of A Number.