Monday, July 26, 2010

THINK OF A NUMBER - John Verdon

 FIRST LINE: "'Where were you?' said the old woman in the bed. 'I had to pee, and no one came.'"

Homicide investigator Dave Gurney has retired from the NYPD when an old classmate contacts him about some disturbing letters he's been receiving. Mark Mellery owns and operates a spiritual retreat of sorts. People come to clarify their lives and get them back on track. When Mellery starts receiving these taunting letters that insinuate the sender knows him intimately he turns to Gurney. And when Mellery winds up brutally murdered and all the clues lead the investigators in circles, they bring Gurney into the fold to help them solve this bizarre puzzle. The investigators believe someone from Mellery's retreat is responsible, but Gurney has a hard time believing that. His gut tells him that's not the right path to follow. And when a series of other murders follow the same pattern as Mellery's but in completely different geographic locations, Gurney is convinced his gut was right. But there don't appear to be any connections between the victims; who is doing the murdering and why?

THINK OF A NUMBER just stole the spot of my favorite 2010 debut. It's a thought-provoking thriller written with attention to detail. And while it's written in the third person and the readers know more than Gurney, they don't know the answers. So they're working on the puzzle in the same way he is. What I discovered by the end was that I wasn't so interested in who the killer actually turned out to be as I was by the process of unfolding all the clues.

The mind-bending puzzles that form the plot of THINK OF A NUMBER provide a fresh approach to the serial killer concept.

The added dimension of Gurney's dysfunctional relationships to his wife and son add to the depth of Gurney's character. They also enhance a subtle theme that weaves its way through the book in the relationships of almost all the characters. I believe Verdon reveals it to us in a comment from Mark Mellery:
"'We each seem to be wired to believe my situation causes my problems but your personality causes yours. This creates trouble. My desire to have everything my way seems to make sense, while your desire to to have everything your way seems infantile. A better day would be a day during which I felt better and you behaved better. The way I see things is the way they are. The way you see things is warped by your agenda.'"
Like the puzzle of the murders, it makes the reader stop and think about their own interactions with others. Who Gurney is and his own reflection on himself becomes just as pivotal to the plot as the murder investigation.

Verdon also has a talent with imagery. I was especially struck by many images he created throughout the book, including:
"Gurney had the feeling he'd just watched someone stub his toe and turn it into a pirouette."
or
"The door was a reddish brown that reminded Gurney of dried blood. Yellow crime-scene tape, tied to portable stanchions, encircled the shabby little property. All it needed was a bow in the front, thought Gurney, to make it the gift from hell."
The use of contrast in both of these examples of imagery make the mind pictures pop, enhancing their effect on the reader. Verdon creates his own 3-D effect, no glasses needed.

I find that I'm more critical of thrillers than any other book in the crime fiction genre. I don't like the idea of letting go of reality, but I don't even remember if Verdon wanted me to let go of reality because I was so caught up in my fascination with the puzzles and the relationships of the characters that I simply had to know more. Half the fun of the novel was watching the pieces unfold and fit into place both in the investigation of the murder and Gurney's investigation of his own soul. He's a man who has spent his life surrounded by death and while he tries to avoid the one that impacts him the most, he realizes, "No matter how hard one tries to ignore it, death finds a way to be noticed. It seeps into your feelings like water through a basement wall."

THINK OF A NUMBER is one of the most cerebral books I've read in some time. It challenged me as a reader in many ways and I felt enriched by simply having experienced it.

THINK OF A NUMBER is available in hardcover from Crown Publishers (ISBN: 978-0-307-58892-0). And this post is part of the TLC blog tour for THINK OF A NUMBER. You can also play the "Think of a Number" game here.

**Note to book club members: TLC will be holding a "Book Club of the Month" contest for this book in August. Register your book club and you could win up to 10 copies of the book for your members.

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16 comments:

Kay July 26, 2010 at 8:14 PM  

Jen, I'm glad you enjoyed your time with this book. It certainly worked for me. I dearly hope that John Verdon is working on another book in this series. I was fascinated by Dave Gurney and I wanted to know more about Madeleine too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

rhapsodyinbooks July 26, 2010 at 8:46 PM  

I read that preface and it sounded too much like Psycho so I put it down! But your review has me intrigued - I'll have to persevere!

Jen Forbus July 26, 2010 at 8:55 PM  

Kay, I'm exactly the same way. Gurney is fascinating and Madeleine is too...I should have mentioned how I liked the way the hashed things out together.

And definitely no worries about a Psycho-like plot. Oh no! It's very psychological and fascinating. I didn't find it scary or gruesome.

dining tables July 27, 2010 at 4:37 AM  

I get so curious when I read the review about this book. It sounds an exciting book to read. I need to buy one as soon as possible.

Naomi Johnson July 27, 2010 at 8:22 AM  

Jotting it down. Just as I was feeling pretty good about adhering to my book-buying budget this month.

Jenn's Bookshelves July 27, 2010 at 8:36 AM  

I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this one! When you like a book, it's pretty much a given that I will enjoy it as well! It's coming up on my review stack.

SuziQoregon July 27, 2010 at 9:49 AM  

Ditto what Jenn said - when I see you like a book this much (particularly a debut) it goes on my list. This is one time I'm ahead of the game - loaded this one on my nook last week. Now I have to move it higher on the 'read soon' list.

Lynne Perednia July 27, 2010 at 4:17 PM  

Completely agree -- this is definitely one of the best books I've read this year. What an accomplished debut.

Hank Phillippi Ryan July 27, 2010 at 7:03 PM  

I loved it, too! I got an ARC, just by chance, and hadn't heard a thing about it. So, you know? it was extra fun to feel as if I had discovered something serendipitiously. I was wowed!

LisaMM July 27, 2010 at 8:12 PM  

Favorite 2010 debut, that's HUGE!!! YAY! I'm so happy you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for being on the tour!

Lesa July 27, 2010 at 10:22 PM  

Jen,

I liked it, but didn't love it. I really appreciated the relationships, and kept reading because of Dave and Madeleine. But, I had a problem with the villain. The fact that the police never looked at that person as the villain bothered me. It seemd to be a debut novelist's mistake.

Interesting book, but I guess I was the supercritical one on this one.

Hmmm. Debut novel of the year so far? Not a thriller - Wanna Get Lucky? by Deborah Coonts for me.

Of course, thinking about the year I've had, there might be a reason I went with something lighter.

Jen Forbus July 28, 2010 at 5:55 AM  

Hey Lesa! I can understand why light would be preferable! :-)

[possible spoiler alert!]
I think the police not investigating the villain wasn't an issue for me because he warded it off from the start. Kinda like a proactive effort on his part by contacting them first, so they went on the defensive. Plus the fact that his name had been changed. I think they mention that the police didn't think to go back to the previous owners of the house because the present owner by all records was a different person. All in all, I don't think Verdon blatantly overlooked that factor; I think he was trying to provide an alternate possibility. I think it also reinforces the idea that comes up at the beginning. The detective is determined that it's someone at the retreat, but Gurney isn't convinced. The detective gets tunnel vision and doesn't look at other options. Same thing happens to Gurney. He is steamrolled and doesn't look at other options. Unfortunately history has shown us that's all too realistic a possibility. But, just my thoughts.

stacybuckeye August 10, 2010 at 1:01 PM  

I am so looking forward to this.

Thoughts of Joy August 22, 2010 at 9:10 AM  

It's been so long since I've commented (just not enough time in a day), but it has been so much fun catching up! I have this ARC on my nightstand and it has been calling me, but I keep thinking that I already passed the publishing date so I pick up something else. Hopefully it'll be in my hands soon. I'm looking forward to it.

Alison's Book Marks September 6, 2010 at 8:50 PM  

Great review! My husband is reading this book right now, and I have a feeling I will be sending him over to read your blog the next time he's unsure what to read next. I discovered your blog on the BBAW ballot, and I have to say, I'm a new fan!

Best of luck to you!

Jen Forbus September 7, 2010 at 9:52 AM  

Thank you Alison! What a very nice compliment. You've made my day. Hope you have a wonderful one as well.

And I hope your husband stops by. The more the merrier!

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