Stimulus: John Verdon – Think of a Number
John Verdon’s debut novel is a cautionary tale of lopsided storytelling. The meat of this book is a mystery which lures the reader with false trails and bizarre circumstances. The puzzle is an intriguing one, and it is solved with solemn reason that piques the intellect. Problem is, just about everything else in this book is crap.
Retired New York detective Dave Gurney is the hero of the story, sought out by an old college acquaintance to lend his thoughts on a strange matter. This old classmate, who suffered through some lost years before emerging as a self-help guru, received a mysterious threat in the mail, one which includes a baffling mind reading magic trick. What begins as possible harassment, or possible extortion, soon sweeps Gurney into something much darker. Clues are strewn throughout the story, but as the adversary toys with those chasing him, so does Verdon toy with the reader’s judgment. On the merits of the mystery itself, he has crafted a worthy tale.
Yet there’s so much going against the main plot. Starting from its horribly overwrought opening, Think of a Number falls prey to ridiculous amounts of exposition. There’s a lot of dialogue between Gurney and others on the case, but that isn’t the problem. Besides the presence of a few jackasses on the team – most notably a doofus referred to as Tom Cruise’s clone and a preening D.A. who seems disturbingly excited about the adversary’s reign of terror – the conversation stays largely on target and advances the story instead of hindering it. The problem is when every minute flicker of thought in Dave Gurney’s head blazes through the narrative, dragging the story to a halt. It’s okay to show Gurney’s humanity, his frailties and damage, but whole chapters are devoted to the slightest provocation sending him spiraling into his life story.
There are a few other screwups that stick out in the tale, and though they’re not as bad as the overnarration they severely undermine the story’s gravity. The story’s blatant lifting of a plot point from The Shining – the movie, not the book – is pretty galling. Furthermore, a member of the supporting cast is a clear-cut New York cop named Randy Clamm. Really. Yet worse than this porn star nomenclature is a gay, gay, gay witness whom Gurney comes across while on his quarry’s trail. How over the top is he? Well, his name is Bruce, for starters, and he runs a bed and breakfast that serves as a fully immersive shrine to the Wizard of Oz. And when Gurney arrives on the scene, the first thing that Bruce does is flip out about his missing ruby slippers. Seriously.
In all, Verdon could become a great mystery writer – provided he gets a handle on everything else.
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