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THINK OF A NUMB3R by John Verdon: Book Review

Imagine if someone told you to think of a number, any number, from one to one thousand. You do, and that person hands you a previously written note with the number you had in mind.  How did he do it?  It’s not your age, your house number, the number of children you have, the year you were born–it’s just a number that you pulled from the top of your head.  How did he know the number you would choose? This is the problem that opens Think of a Numb3r by John Verdon.

Retired police detective Dave Gurney is trying to settle down to a peaceful life with his wife in a small village in upstate New York. Out of the blue he gets an e-mail from a college classmate, a man he hasn’t heard from in more than twenty years.  The letter’s author is Mark Mellery, now a well-known author and director of a nearby spiritual retreat, and in his letter he asks for Gurney’s help.  Reluctantly Gurney agrees to see him the following day, and when Mellery arrives he explains what is troubling him.

Years ago Mellery had a serious alcohol problem, and there are black holes in his memory, weeks and weeks of which he has no memory.  It’s been years since he’s taken a drink, but now he has received a letter in which the letter writer appears to know some secret from that time.

To prove that he knows all about Mellery, the letter writer asked him pick a number from one to one thousand; Mellery picked six fifty eight, a number he swears to Gurney simply came to him with no association to any part of his life.  When he opened the envelope that was enclosed in the letter, the number six fifty eight is what was written.  Of course, part of Mellery’s problem is that the number has no association to any part of his life that he remembers, given the many alcoholic blackouts he had, and he’s now convinced that the letter writer knows some disreputable secret about his past.

He refuses Gurney’s suggestion that he go to the police, saying that that would be a lose-lose situation: either they’ll treat the whole thing as a joke or they’ll start poking around his Institute for Spiritual Renewal, upsetting his clients, and that would be worse.

Reluctantly Gurney tells Mellery he’ll look into the problem–there has to be a simple solution, no one could possibly have known what number he would choose. Then Mellery receives a phone call in which he’s asked to pick another number.  He chooses nineteen, again for no apparent reason, and is told to go to the mailbox outside his home and open the envelope that’s there.  He does, and there’s a slip of paper inside with the number nineteen written on it.  And then Mellery is killed.

This novel is truly a thriller. The reader knows there has to be some logical explanation for the numbers game and for the bizarre way that Mellery is murdered–shot, his throat slashed numerous times, footprints in the snow leading away from the body and then simply disappearing, and a chair abandoned in the middle of a snow-covered lawn with cigarettes strewn around it.  Unless you’re a believer in ESP, which Gurney isn’t, you have to believe there’s a logical explanation.  But what is it?

Think of a Numb3r is an incredible debut. The plotting is fast-paced, page-turning, and the various characters that Gurney encounters in his search for Mellery’s killer ring true.  And Gurney’s strained relationship with his wife and his difficulty in truly leaving behind his sleuthing days are well written and believable.

You can read more about John Verdon in this interview.

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