Sunday, September 11

Think of a Number - John Verdon

Dave Gurney was best known for his capture of some of the East Coast's most infamous serial killers; in his retirement a chance art class, taken at the behest of his wife Madeleine, is allowing his an outlet related to but not directly connected with his police work. He's quite content to work, pixel by pixel, on digital images of his successes, to the disappointment of Madeleine, who had hoped for a murder-free life. Gurney's content, that is, until a former classmate contacts him.
Gurney was never friends with Mark Mellery, much as the latter's letter tries to imply the contrary. What is clear, though it is thinly masked, is that the other man is frightened. An alcoholic to the point that he blacked out while his wife drowned only feet away, Mellery has turned his life around to become a guru of personal transformation. Everything was fine - new career, wonderful house, acclaim, a loving wife - until the first letter.
Penned in red ink, the cryptic note alludes to a connection with the past and is written by a former, unnamed confidant so close to Mellery that he is able to predict what number Mellery would chose when asked to pick one between one and a hundred. The number (658) has no significance for Mellery, and the idea that this number (sealed inside an included envelope) could be known by another person totally disturbs him. It's the next stage, however, that causes him to contact Guerney - to find out who knows him so well, the second note says, Mellery must send cash or a cheque to a PO Box in the name of X. Arybdis ("not always my name"). Mellery sends the cheque, which is returned as unknown by the PO Box holder. The returned cheque is soon followed by two eight-line poems, also in red ink, that hint at past misdeeds and an impending threat.
I was attracted to Think of a Number (the first in what will clearly be a series) by the premise of a stranger being able to guess what random number another person would pick. I began reading it soon after, only to put it down after a couple of pages because I found the writing style irritating. I have, however, entirely too many unread books and so I took the opportunity of a long-haul flight to make inroads on some of the backlog. I'm glad I did - the mystery is interesting and unique, the character of Guerney interesting and flawed (I do believe that's mandatory in contemporary novels of the genre), and I really liked the way Madeleine's quite different perspective illuminates aspects of the case.
However, there were several times where I got ahead of Guerney, often by several chapters - these included how the killer guessed another number (ridiculously obvious answer that occurred to me immediately but not to Guerney until 240 pages later), the meaning of his pseudonym (X. Arybdis), and the identity of the killer a couple of chapters ahead of out hero. Fortunately, posing over the book for this review I now have an answer to something I had been thinking of as an unanswered loose end: a fish ("Was it a flounder?" Madeleine asked) was left at one scene to link it to another murder.
My biggest issue with Think of a Number (Numb3r in some editions), though, is the tone.
The writing has a literary quality at odds with the genre - sentences are not only over-long but unnecessarily descriptive, and Guerney is introspective and self-reflective to a ridiculous extent. Opening the book at random I found:
He closed his eyes, hoping the goodness of the moment would counteract those mental energies that were always propelling him into puzzle solving. For Guerney, achieving even a little contentment was, ironically, a struggle. He envied Madeleine's keen attachment to the fleeing instant and the pleasure she found in it. For him living in the moment was always a swim upstream, his analytical mind naturally preferring the realms of probability, possibility. He wondered if it was a genetic or learned form of escape. Probably both, mutually reinforcing....
He caught himself in the absurd act of analyzing his propensity for analysis. He ruefully tried again to be present in the room.
Gurney notes, assesses and weighs every characters' every aspect, and Verdon faithfully records it all. In case tone, word choice and description are inadequate, utterances are also qualified - glints in eyes shout, lips are pursed "by way of complaint"
There's also something of a laziness of description despite this gratuitous detail - a pathologist strongly resembles Sigourney Weaver (occasionally adopting a Mr Rogers-like tone, which no doubt has more resonance for American readers than I), two functionaries are reminiscent of Tom Cruise, and Guerney himself "looked like Robert Redford in All the President's Men" at college and "Still do - haven't changed a bit!".
I could also have done with more shades of grey - the supporting cast, primarily senior law enforcement, lawyers and politicians, are almost without exception relentlessly blustery, vainglorious and incompetent.
Despite this I finished Think of a Number, primarily because the mysteries (how did the footprints in the snow abruptly end? And most pivotal, how was the number 658 guessed?). I was also pleased that one thing I predicted (Madeleine leaving) didn't occur, though there's at least one sequel to come. I don't think I like Guerney much - his family come a distant second to work, despite the tragic death of his young son (in no small part due to Guerney's distraction about a case) - even when he doesn't have the potential death of future victims as an excuse he still fails to pay attention to his wife, or to do things that he knows would please her, in a passive-aggressive way I found markedly off-putting.
I did enjoy Think of a Number more than I suspect this review indicates. If you're interested in a mystery that combines an unusually literary feel with violent murder and a few good tricks you could do worse than pick this up. I suspect that, should I return to Verdon's work, which may well mellow with experience, it will via the library - I see that the sequel, Close Your Eyes Tight is available for loan. - Alex

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