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Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Game of Cat and Mouse: The Secrets we Prefer to Keep


Inner demons... we all have them. Those things we wish we’d never done/said/thought, the choices we’d unmake (if only we could), and the internal battles we’re constantly fighting--all the things we’re ashamed of, but can’t escape. When it comes to our deepest, darkest secrets, we’ll go to great lengths to ensure they remain  hidden... and with good reason.
So, imagine that one day you receive a letter from a total stranger who claims to know your deepest, darkest secrets. To prove the point, you’re instructed to play a little game, something that, in person, would seem like a parlour trick: you’re to think of a number between one and one thousand, then to open a second, sealed envelope and read the contents therein... at which point you discover that the mystery correspondent has correctly guessed your chosen number. Out of a thousand numbers you could have chosen. 
Naturally, you freak out, thinking that if the impossible has just happened--if a complete stranger has inexplicably but accurately predicted such a random thing about you--then what awful, buried things might this person also know... and how?
More importantly, what is he/she planning to do with that knowledge? And, what lengths are you willing to go to, in order to keep your dark skeletons buried?   
Those are the questions facing retired NYPD homicide investigator Dave Gurney when an old college acquaintance phones him out of the blue one day, frantically requesting some advice, in newcomer John Verdon’s tour-de-force debut, Think of a Number.
Gurney has plenty of reservations about getting involved. He’s retired, for starters, living a tranquil existence in upstate New York with his long-suffering wife Madeline (and she certainly doesn’t want to hear that he’s considering anything resembling police work). And, frankly, he was never that close with his former classmate; they’d been in the same large circle twenty-five years ago, nothing more. 
Still, there are plenty of other considerations in favor of Gurney’s involvement. For one, he’s been going stir crazy; living in the country was always Madeline’s dream, never his. He is capable of incredible focus, and he has a real knack for making sense of bits and bobs of seemingly-disparate information--so much so that he cracked some of the biggest murder cases in the state during his years on the job--but there’s been nothing to apply that talent and intensity toward in the two years he’s been retired. There’s something hard to deny in his larger-than-life former classmate’s voice, too--an uncharacteristic fear and desperation to which he can’t say no. Perhaps the deciding factor, though, is the knowledge that seeing his friend would provide Gurney with a distraction from the inner turmoil that’s been threatening to overwhelm him recently. (Everyone knows that it's always easier to sweep a mess under the rug than to deal with it.) 
After reading the letters (poems, actually), Gurney is dismayed to realize that this is much more than just a challenging riddle or an elaborate practical joke... and that his friend has good reason to be worried (although he refuses to seek help from the authorities). Over the following days, the clever poet continues sending messages, each more ominous in tone than the last. Like a cat who's closing in on the mouse, he delivers taunts and subtle threats to his prey... creating a frenzy of confusion and fear. 
When Gurney's friend is suddenly, brutally murdered--abruptly changing the game from a clever puzzle to a bloody, violent crime--a horrified (and guilt-stricken) he goes to the police, (eventually) persuading them that they’re looking for more than just a run-of-the-mill murderer. He even agrees to act as consultant--much to his wife’s disappointment.
Before long, it’s not just his friend’s murderer he’s helping to track; two more bodies turn up under nearly-identical circumstances, with the same creepy messages ramping up the psychological terror prior to the victims’ murders. The poet is now a serial killer.
Gurney knows he’s messing things up with his home life by delving deeper and deeper into the case, yet he also knows that he can’t just walk away; using his mind in this manner--figuring out the mystery--is part of who he is, as essential as breathing. 

When the latest message targets Gurney specifically, the ex-cop knows there’s no alternative but to meet the madman face-to-face. He has no idea if he’ll walk away from the confrontation alive... because in the end, the final showdown won’t be about who can outwit whom, but about who is better able to face--and conquer--his inner demons.
******
Think of a Number is a psychological suspense novel which strikes the perfect balance between the terrors of facing an unknown evil and the turmoil of dealing with the ever-present darkness in one’s mind. In so doing, it successfully bridges the genre divide to become a powerful, moving piece of literary fiction in its own right. 
The real key to the book’s success is, of course, Gurney; he’s an incredibly-sympathetic character, an all-too “real” man struggling to make some sense out of his life in middle age and to figure out what the rest of that life might hold in store. His relationship with wife Madeline is believable and well-played, and their conversations--as well as all the pauses, looks, and other nonverbal communications which fill in the conversational gaps--ring entirely true. Gurney, like the rest of us, is far from perfect. He’s made his share of mistakes. He’s always placed such a high priority on work that his relationships have suffered. In so many ways, he’s feeling like a personal failure. Over the course of the case, though, he finally comes to the realization that--much like the art he’d been working on to counter the boredom of retirement--his life is actually still a work in progress... and that the power to change things is his, and his alone. 
In short, Think of a Number is a thriller that thrills and a psychological study that makes you think, and it--and author John Verdon--are the real deal.


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