Book Review: John Verdon’s THINK OF A NUMBER

John Verdon’s Think of a Number hooked me quickly with an intriguing premise, but its need for editing prevents it from being more enjoyable.

Retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney is contacted by an old acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who says he’s being stalked by someone sending sinister notes. The note writer seems to be able to read Mellery’s mind, telling him to think of random numbers and correctly predicting them in previously sealed envelopes. Before Gurney can figure out the motive, Mellery is murdered, with baffling clues left behind for the cops to find. When other bodies start piling up, the police bring in Gurney as a consultant to help beat the killer at his own twisted game.

For the first quarter of the book, Verdon had me flipping the pages because I couldn’t figure out how the killer was pulling off the mind-reading scheme. Eventually, though, the author’s tendency to overwrite everything became problematic. Witness the following:

For a moment he was distracted by the awareness of his own dissembling presentation of his emotional reaction.

That confusing sentence aside, Verdon often states the obvious. Gurney is told by another cop not to remove and touch evidence from a plastic bag when the brilliant veteran detective would know this. Adverbs are overused, both in dialogue tags—e.g. “he whispered gratingly”—and in descriptions: A cop gives Gurney a “professionally neutral” look. As opposed to a casually neutral look? Neutral is neutral.

We’re also told several times within a scene how a character resembles Sigourney Weaver, and the androgynous quality of another’s voice is mentioned every time she speaks. These details have no importance, making their repetition curious. And perhaps to heighten Gurney’s expertise, Verdon piles the stupidity onto almost every other law enforcement character, having them ask inane questions befitting a rookie instead of a DA, police captain or twenty-four-year veteran on the force.

The emotionally distant Gurney is hard to like; even he admits he’s more cerebral than emotive. For all his thinking, his wife Madeleine is the one who figures out some of the most perplexing aspects of the case. He also makes an incredibly careless move to bait the killer that puts Madeleine’s life at risk then doesn’t warn her of the danger she’s in.

The book’s flaws are frustrating because the unique central puzzle could have been turned into a more thrilling story. I wish Gurney, the supposedly astute detective, and his creator had discovered that sometimes less is more.

Nerd verdict: Faulty Number

This post is part of the TLC blog tour for Think of a Number. Click here to see other participating blogs and reviews.



  • Reply
    Jen Forbus
    July 28, 2010 at 3:30 am

    As I’m sure you read, I had a totally different reaction to this one. I realize reading your review that adverbs do not bother me in the least. I don’t mind them in dialogue tags. Actually I guess I don’t even pay them that much notice. It’s more irritating to me to hear “said” over and over and over than it is to have variety and adverbs. I hate repetition that isn’t serving a purpose. And that I do notice.

    The other characters came across as stupid to me. I thought the DA came across as ambitious, which can lead to doing things for the wrong reasons. Some of the cops came across as control freaks. And they also had a tendency to get tunnel vision, which I think is all too realistic. And then I also think Verdon was trying to hammer home the fact that murders like this aren’t all that common…so the investigators weren’t seasoned veterans with this kind of case.

    I wouldn’t say I connected with Gurney, but I kinda thought that was Verdon’s goal. Gurney wasn’t connecting with anyone…his wife…his own life. He was disconnected. And that enhanced the experience for me. I kinda felt what people around him would have. I definitely didn’t dislike him and completely understand his behavior by the end of the book. But someone who spent his life in the minds of serial killers would scare me if he was warm and fuzzy.

    However, that being said, I also did a “huh? Really?” During a lot of the award nominations this year. So I tend to read and experience a little different, I guess.

    • Reply
      Jen Forbus
      July 28, 2010 at 8:20 am

      Oops,just realized I left out a didn’t…the other characters didn’t come across stupid to me. Sorry about that.

  • Reply
    July 28, 2010 at 7:59 am

    I’m a little more than half-way through this one and loving it. I just kind of skimmed your review and Jen’s response. I’m sure there aren’t any spoilers, but I still don’t want to know too much. I’m in Jen’s camp. I’m loving this one and maybe because of that am glossing over/not noticing some of the things that are bugging you. I see your point about Gurney, but I kind of identify with him. So maybe I find him more sympathetic.

    HOWEVER, (and Jen I was going to ask you about this today), it did bother me that he kept referring to Wigg as “genderless.” What does that even mean? That she looks androgynous? I don’t remember her describing her that way. More just remembered him saying she had red hair. I found that “genderless” tag very strange.

    So far, that’s all that’s bugged me. Unless something I just read turns out to be a total red herring. If it were a red herring, it’s a little too obvious and makes me think he thinks I’m stupid. If it’s not a red herring, it’s fairly careless writing.

    But overall, I’m loving this one and just hope the conclusion doesn’t let me down.

  • Reply
    July 28, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I think I’ll skip this book (the upcoming mysteries from Paretksy, Sandford and the fabulous SO COLD THE RIVER from a wonderful friend take precedence over this lukewarm read) but I do like the jacket.

    I usually love reading books in locations with which I’m familiar – a sucker for NYC and Chicago locations especially – but need to stop reading the scary ones set in my area as it makes my already over-active imagination go nuts when I walk alone at night! I need to earn a brown belt like you.

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    July 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    That habit of the folks at crime scenes reminding fellow professionals not to mess up the evidence, or “bag that, please,” to someone holding up a bloody knife bobs up a lot in TV shows as well, and bugs me. That aside, it sounds somewhat intriguing, but I still have a To Read list I can’t jump over so I’ll probably shelve this one. Thanks for the helpful review, PCN!

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    July 29, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Jen and Lauren—I’m glad you’re here to balance out my review. Thank you.

    Novelwhore—Why are you walking alone at night?? Please tell me you have pepper spray and brass knuckles in your purse.

    Shell—I’m still waiting to hear your thoughts on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!

    • Reply
      July 29, 2010 at 1:50 pm

      Your review doesn’t need balancing! As I mentioned in our other discussion, and as Jen mentioned, I think Verdon has a little trouble fleshing out secondary characters. Hence his tendency to gloss over them and call them Tom Cruise or Sigourney Weaver or some other generalized characterization of what a cop looks like.

      In this particular instance that didn’t bother me as it did you, because the plot and Dave and the writing in general was enough to keep me interested. Had that not been the case, I would have been more in your camp, I’m sure. And I’m a very internal person like Dave (just ask my husband), so I do relate to him with those issues. And as I said, that red herring might ruin the whole thing for me, we’ll see. Either way I didn’t like it.

      As an aside, I found it weird that in the email alert sent to me I was referenced as Lolo, but in the comment here it says Lauren. Weird?

      • Reply
        Pop Culture Nerd
        July 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm

        I originally wrote Lolo but after submitting my comment saw you’d written Lauren so I changed it. I like to address people by whichever name they use here.

        Update: You’ve now changed it back to LolosLetters so perhaps I shall just address you as L.

        • Reply
          July 29, 2010 at 2:29 pm

          I didn’t change ANYTHING. This site is possessed. But so long as you don’t tell me the number I’m thinking of, I think I’ll be able to get past it. 🙂

    • Reply
      Shell Sherree
      August 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

      I LOVED …the Dragon Tattoo ~ aside from a couple of sickening bits that I guess were crucial to the story but really got to me. Once I hung in there through the first chapter or so {I had to skim some of it in hopes the general gist would stand me in good enough stead as things progressed}, I couldn’t bear to put it down. I’m heading to the library later this week to pick up The Girl Who Played With Fire.

      • Reply
        Pop Culture Nerd
        August 4, 2010 at 5:56 pm

        Hooray! I’m so glad you liked it and completely understand your skimming the really nasty bits. They were so difficult for me to stomach.

        I think you’ll like Fire even more. And check out the Tattoo movie which is out on DVD!

  • Reply
    Lisa Munley
    August 5, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Interesting review, and what a great conversation it ignited! Thanks so much for being on this tour. We really appreciate all the time that went into reading/reviewing Think of a Number!

  • Reply
    December 1, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Is it just me? I love thrillers, I love books like this. I can’t put them down. Then just before the end, I felt that I had to close to book and not read any further. My reason? Well, the profanity. Why write: Jesus f… Christ? Is that really necessary, John Verdon and his Publisher? Does that add value to the book? John, would you write: f… Mohammed? or f… Buddha? Surely not. You go way down in my esteem John, despite your fantastic plot in your book. Am I alone? Yes, I am a Christian, but even if I was not! Bastiaan, South Africa.

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