At the end of May, and the beginning of summer, I wrote here about the anticipation of summer reading and offered some of my own plans and suggestions. At midsummer, I’ve decided it’s time for a book report. I suggested John Verdon for those who like a “can’t put it down” thriller, although at that point I had read only one of his four novels. I have finished all of them now, and each is as good as, if not better than, the first.
Dave Gurney is a retired NYPD homicide detective. He is only in his late forties, but he has decided it is time to leave a job that has devoured him, heart and soul, and make up for the neglect visited on his wife and adult son while his work consumed him. He and Madeleine have bought a large property in the Catskills where they can enjoy nature and become part of a community. What Dave did not reckon with is his own nature. He doesn’t miss New York, but he misses unraveling puzzles. He was highly commended in his NYPD work for solving the most difficult murders. Now he is challenged by building a chicken coop that will keep out foxes and other predators.
Dave is sought out by people who are entangled in seemingly inexplicable situations. He resists getting involved, even when the “consulting fee” is exorbitant, but ultimately gives in. His need is not for money, but for the challenge of the puzzle. And the puzzles are some of the most intricately constructed I have ever encountered in my reading. The crimes themselves are usually bizarre, more gruesome than I normally enjoy reading about. They are committed in ways that seem impossible. The shocking murders (a bride decapitated on her wedding day, a son shot at his mother’s funeral) combined with clues like footprints that lead nowhere or voices in an empty room let us know we are dealing with a killer who is ruthless, highly motivated, brilliant, and insane. Dave loves nothing more than unraveling, bit by bit, both the method of the murder and the twisted thinking that has led to it.
Verdon’s novels are worth reading for the puzzles alone. The reader is challenged to figure out, with Dave, the how and why of the crime. The ghastly means used are actually part of the riddle, and, as such, are less repugnant to the reader than gore for the sake of cheap thrills.
For those of us who are demanding enough to expect both a great plot and appealing, or at least interesting, characters, Verdon does not disappoint. Dave fights the truth about himself: he is only feels alive when he is solving a mystery. He can remember every detail of a crime scene but not that his wife told him they are having dinner guests. Yet he loves his wife and would like to devote himself to things like raising chickens. Madeleine, who had hopes that the move to the country would cause Dave to pay more attention to family life, is frustrated, yet accepting of who he is. She sees the transformation from torpor to animation in him when he is faced with an enigma. Frequently, she becomes the sounding board for his analysis, and offers insights which advance the plot.
Jack Hardwick is a state police detective who, along with his very rough edges, has a deep resentment toward this hotshot city detective who seems to get involved in Jack’s most difficult cases. For all his surface appearance as the overweight, loudmouthed, rash stereotypical country cop, he also has a keen mind and a desire to solve intractable crimes. Over the course of the four novels, he and Dave develop a grudging respect for each other’s talents, even if it is expressed with dripping sarcasm and insults. Hardwick’s mind and mouth both made me look forward to his appearance in each book.
The characters who support the individual plots are also well drawn. Frequently they are hiding secrets and give misleading or deceptive information for reasons unrelated to the crime. This deceit gives Dave more questions to answer and another set of motivations to unravel.
The pacing of the narrative is almost perfect. As the suspense builds, we are gently distracted by domestic events, such as the almost forgotten dinner party. Even there, the conversation leads Dave to some new ideas and causes one of the guests to call the next day with a potential clue. Every scene builds to the resolution, but the reader is given a breather from the intensity.
The novels have one feature I rarely see in contemporary fiction. The chapters actually have titles. They range from “Darker, Colder, Deeper,” somewhat nebulous, to “The Return of the Shepherd,” telling us that a serial killer from the distant past may not be as inactive as the detectives thought. I’m not sure they are necessary to the reading experience, but I admire an author who takes the time to summarize a chapter in a few words.
If you like to follow the evolution of ongoing characters and relationships, I recommend you read Verdon’s novels in order: Think of a Number, Shut Your Eyes Tight, Let the Devil Sleep and Peter Pan Must Die. If you are interested only in plot, any of them will keep you captivated. Warning: Don’t start unless you have nothing pressing to do.