Fresh Blood

Name: John Verdon

Title of Book: Think of a Number

'An extraordinary crime fiction debut...'

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.

An extraordinary crime fiction debut, Think of a Number is an exquisitely plotted novel of suspense that grows relentlessly darker and more frightening as its pace accelerates, forcing its deeply troubled characters to moments of startling self-revelation.

Verdon brings a new twist to a serial killer finding his victims. The killer initially contacts the victims via the post and can seemingly read their minds. Although the reader knows that logically this is not possible, it is not obvious how the 'trick' is carried out.

Gurner is a typical lead character. A cop dedicated to the job, to the detriment of his family. A cop who should be retired but who cant let a killer get away and goes back to the force for 'just one more case'.

I found Verdon very easy to read and his style of writing and characters had a very familiar feel to them. A hugely complex plot with a great mix of characters, and all in all a fantastic read.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
Reviewers have described Think of a Number as a nail-biting thriller, a classic “impossible crime” murder mystery, an exciting police procedural, an examination of a marriage in trouble. The truth is, I wasn’t trying to write within the defined boundaries of any particular genre, or to follow the construction rules for a “psychological thriller” or a “PI noir” or a “cozy” or any other category. At the time I was writing Think of a Number, I didn’t even know what the traditional categories were. I just wanted to tell a story about a very smart and troubled good guy locked in a desperate struggle with a very smart and troubled bad guy. Bottom line, Dave Gurney is an unstoppable cop with a tragic sense of his own ineptitude as a human being. And that sort of central character probably makes the book many things to many people.
2) What type of crime/thriller novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
What I like the least is anything that veers toward the explicitly sadistic. What I like the most are mysteries with an intellectual challenge -- stories within the widest interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes tradition. And a series is always a plus. If I enjoy the personalities of a set of central characters, I want to revisit them.
3) You have been very adventurous with your debut novel. Where did you get the idea of a 'lottery' murderer?
Truth be told, I have a deep streak of paranoia. It’s a curse and a blessing. A curse because I can easily scare the hell out of myself. A blessing because I have no trouble coming up with really disturbing plot possibilities. The seed of the idea behind Think of a Number was something like this: What if you got an anonymous note from someone who challenged you to think of any number from one to a thousand, and then a second note revealing the exact number you thought of? What if this were followed by a series of increasingly threatening messages? I think there’s something deeply unsettling about the notion that some malignant individual might know something intimate and terrible about you. The book takes off from that starting point, weaving a complex, nightmarish web that entangles a lot people, a lot of victims. When an idea gives me a little tingle of gooseflesh, I know it has possibilities.
4) 4) Did you have the idea of this book for some time, and was the finished ‘Think of a Number’ what you always had in mind?
It seems that I always have a few “what if” plot possibilities lurking in the back of my mind. In my own imaginative process, plot devices precede character development -- but that’s simply a matter of sequence, not priority. I may think of an intriguing situation -- say the number device in this book, or the inexplicable footprints in the snow -- and that leads me into imagining what sort of larger story that situation could be part of. Imagining that story then starts to bring to life the kind of people who would inhabit that world and do those things, what sort of people they’d come into conflict with, what those people might look and sound like, and so forth. The further I get into that process, the more important the elements of character become and the more the goals and feelings of the characters start to take over. So I’d say that bits and pieces of Think of a Number had been in my mind for years, but not how they would all fit together.
5) 5) Had you always wanted to write a thriller? How do you manage to keep up such a fast pace in ‘Think of a Number’?
I’d always wanted to write a story that people would enjoyable and exciting. The genre issue was never a matter of much importance to me. The “mystery-thriller” form just turned out to be a natural fit for the way I think. As for the question of pace, I think, once again, it’s just a reflection of the way my mind works. It’s not something I am consciously trying to achieve -- it just seems “right” and pleasantly involving for things to proceed a certain rate of speed.
6) 6) You have already had high praise from some of the most well-known and highly regarded names in crime fiction, Tess Gerritsen, Reginald Hill, Nelson DeMille to name a few. How do you react to such luminaries talking in such excited tones about your book?
The generous comments and their famous sources staggered me. I never expected anything remotely like that. It is a very strange thing to have read a particular author for many years, to have worshipfully devoured each new book, to have been in awe at the talent on display ... and then to have that very same author welcome you to the club! It really does leave me at a loss for words.
7) Will we see Gurney return in future novels?
Absolutely. Despite the epiphany he experiences in Think of a Number, Dave has a lot more to learn about himself, about his wife and son, and about the nature of the glue that attaches him to his profession. Like all of us, Dave acts on the basis of what he believes is true, and through the consequences of his actions he discovers the limitations of those beliefs and hopefully arrives at a new perception of who he is and what’s important. That’s a process that can be repeated again and again through the cycles of a character’s growth. The second Dave Gurney novel is intended for publication in the summer of 2011, and the third in 2012.
8) 8) Many authors draw on their personal experiences to give depth and insight into the characters and their feelings hopes and desires. Is this something you have conscientiously done or avoided doing preferring rather to use your imagination?
A lot people ask me how much of my main character, Dave Gurney, is based on my own history and personality. After all, we were both born in the same part of New York City and both graduated from Fordham College. We both had high-pressure careers in the city, and we both moved to a remote rural area completely different from what we were accustomed to. And I’ll admit that some of Dave’s thoughts and feelings -- even some of his family background details -- parallel some of my own. However, he definitely has concerns, talents, and perspectives that are different from mine. I mean, he’s a homicide detective! He has the steeliness, the confrontational abilities for that. He has the stomach, the toughness for it. I think I understand Dave Gurney well enough to write about him, but I could never do what he does. To sum up, I’d say that I’ve put significant pieces of myself in him, but he’s certainly not me.
9) 9) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
That’s the one question I won’t answer -- because our film agent is currently pursuing a number of possibilities. When all of that comes to fruition, I suspect I’ll know who my dream cast is.
10) 10) Without giving away the plot, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
What I find interesting about this question is the difficulty I’m having coming up with a mental list of books to rank on the basis of that criterion. What I focus on and remember best about books are things like the attitude of the protagonist, the ensemble interactions of the characters, the small descriptive details that make scenes come to life, the quality and vividness of the writing, the moods evoked by the settings. I don’t know know if I am unusual in this respect, but the beginnings of novels generally interest me more than the endings.
11) 11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
It’s not exactly a novel, but I’d have to say Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
12) 12) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I usually prefer stories told from the point of view of the detective to those told from the point of view of the criminal. I love Reginald Hill. His Andy Dalziel is as great a character, in my opinion, as any created by Dickens. And Mr. Hill seems incapable of writing a bad sentence. I’m also a big fan of the classic California detective writers, especially Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. The writing -- the attitude in their writing -- can be a bit over the top, but delightfully so. And their evocation of setting is wonderful. And, of course, perhaps in a class by himself, there’s Arthur Conan Doyle.
13) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
Hound of the Baskervilles.