Think of a Number (Dave Gurney #1) by John Verdon

Think of a Number by John Verdon
Crown/July 2010

Arriving in the mail over a period of weeks are taunting letters that end with a simple declaration, “Think of any number…picture it…now see how well I know your secrets.” Amazingly, those who comply find that the letter writer has predicted their random choice exactly. For Dave Gurney, just retired as the NYPD’s top homicide investigator and forging a new life with his wife, Madeleine, in upstate New York, the letters are oddities that begin as a diverting puzzle but quickly ignite a massive serial murder investigation.What police are confronted with is a completely baffling killer, one who is fond of rhymes filled with threats and warnings, whose attention to detail is unprecedented, and who has an uncanny knack for disappearing into thin air. Even more disturbing, the scale of his ambition seems to widen as events unfold.

Brought in as an investigative consultant, Dave Gurney soon accomplishes deductive breakthroughs that leave local police in awe. Yet, even as he matches wits with his seemingly clairvoyant opponent, Gurney’s tragedy-marred past rises up to haunt him, his marriage approaches a dangerous precipice, and finally, a dark, cold fear builds that he’s met an adversary who can’t be stopped.

In the end, fighting to keep his bearings amid a whirlwind of menace and destruction, Gurney sees the truth of what he’s become – what we all become when guilty memories fester – and how his wife Madeleine’s clear-eyed advice may be the only answer that makes sense.

Dave Gurney is more than a little surprised when he’s contacted by an old college acquaintance, Mark Mellery. He wants to see Dave, but it’s not just to catch up on old times. Dave agrees to meet with Mellery and he joins Dave at his home. Mellery is overly familiar and his rapport seems a bit forced, but his desperation over some recent correspondence is very real, and he’s come to Dave seeking advice on how to handle the supposed threat.

Mark Mellery now runs the Mellery Institute for Spiritual Renewal, a professed oasis for people seeking spiritual guidance and healing. However, his past saw a period of alcoholism that caused destruction and the end of his marriage, and he’s worried that it might be catching up with him. Strangely enough though, he’s very reluctant to involve the police, even at Dave’s urging. Dave is stumped however, since part of the correspondence included asking him to think of a number, then open an envelope containing a number: the very one that Mark thought of. Dave knows there must be a logical explanation, that this isn’t ESP, but he doesn’t know how the trick was carried out. He does know that the letters get increasingly threatening. Turns out his instincts about the threat were spot on when Mellery turns up dead outside his home, sliced brutally in the throat. Obviously Dave must notify the police of his involvement, and he inevitably becomes tied to the investigation. His reputation precedes him, and his logical mind is just the thing they need to solve this mystifying case. As the killings escalate, Dave must not only muster every tool in his arsenal, but also confront some hard truths within himself.

Think Of a Number is the first book in the Dave Gurney series, and it caught my interest immediately. Dave is brilliant, logical, and nearly always even keeled, but he’s not without his flaws. However, that’s what I liked most about him. As talented as he is at self examination, he constantly misses cues that point to his increased tendency to push away those he loves the most. Dave and his wife, Madeleine moved to the Catskills in the wake of Dave’s retirement, and I always got the sense that Madeleine was desperate to see him take what she considered a much needed break from law enforcement, but if nothing else, Dave Gurney is a cop to the core, and even a tragedy in his past can’t pull him back from the puzzle of this newest case. One would almost think he was using the case so as not to have to deal his wife’s frustration, or the calls from his adult son whose life and career paths he doesn’t quite approve of. His wonderfully precise mind is always “on”, in working a case, in his art (manipulating the mugshot photos of some of his most notorious collars), but the things that should be closest to him seem always just one step too many away.

I dare you to start the first page of this book and not get hooked immediately. It begins with a decidedly creepy lullaby, uttered from a son to his mother and sets up this intricate puzzle mystery perfectly. When you’ve got a hero this fascinating, a villain as brilliant and cunning as he is evil, and and author whose writing pulls you in and dazzles with its smooth grasp of detail and breathless pace, and you’ve got an unputdownable mystery that you’ll stay up very late finishing. I’m looking forward to the next installment in this series. Recommended for suspense fans and puzzle mystery lovers alike!

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