In John Verdon’s spine-tingling 2010 thriller Think of a Number, the founder of a New Age cult receives a threatening letter instructing him to imagine a number between 1 and 1000. When he opens an enclosed envelope, he discovers exactly those potentially deadly digits.
Unnerved, he contacts an old college classmate. Dave Gurney is a former NYPD homicide detective, trying, not very successfully, to adjust to retired life in upstate New York. The visit leaves Gurney uneasy:
It was a curious thing about the past – how it lay in wait for you, quietly, invisibly, almost as though it weren’t there. You might be tempted to think it was gone, no longer existed. Then, like a pheasant flushed from cover, it would roar up in an explosion of sound, color, motion –shockingly alive.
Associations, both mental and between people, will turn out to be at the crux of this puzzle.
Gurney takes the threats in the letter, written in the form of poems, seriously, and his instincts are proven right when the guru turns up shockingly dead, his throat cut and his body mutilated by a broken bottle.
As a witness and a consultant, he gets sucked into the case, much to the dismay of his wife and a local police investigator:
“Before we go any further, I need to know how you know about the broken bottle.”
“Just a wild guess.”
“Just a wild guess that it was a whiskey bottle?”
“Four Roses specifically,” said Gurney, smiling with satisfaction when he saw Hardwick’s
So the stage is set for a battle of wits between the educated inferences of an expert in the criminal mind and a criminal who seems to have supernatural mental powers.
The whodunit here makes this novel a page-turner, especially when the killer starts toying with the police. But the overlap between the crime and the domestic subplot – a reluctant retiree’s frosty relationship with his wife – has something to say about the way the mind works:
Other cops had other cushions – alcohol, frat-boy solidarity, heart-deadening cynicism. Gurney’s shield was his ability to grasp situations as intellectual challenges, and crime as equations to be solved. That was who he was. It was not something he’d cease to be simply by retiring. At least that’s the way he was thinking about it when he finally fell asleep an hour before dawn.
The detective is every bit as compulsive as the killer he’s tracking and trying to understand.
Every detail in Think of a Number, including the whiskey bottle as murder weapon, has significance. For that reason, this novel not only gives your nerves the chills, but your little grey cells some very enjoyable exercise.