#273: Think of a Number (2010) by John Verdon

Think of a NumberThis isn’t a review, it’s an obituary.  My copy of Think of a Number by John Verdon opens with twenty-six glowing review excerpts from a range of authors, publications, and blogs, but it genuinely might be the single worst book I have read in a very, very long time, and without being in the least splenetic about it I’m going to explain why.  I will avoid spoiling it in full thoughtless fashion but, honestly, I’m being mindful of your time, your money, your families, and your health in writing the following.  I take no pleasure in this, it’s purely to save you the experience of this fustercluck of a novel posing and sold to you as something intelligent and worthwhile.  It is neither.  That this is on the market at all is a slap in the face to all concerned.

Retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney was renowned for his brilliance in tracking down serial killers, but it took its toll.  Then one day an ex-college friend comes to him with the following problem: he has received an anonymous hand-written note couched in vaguely threatening terms asking him to think of any number between 1 and 1000 and, upon opening another envelope contained with the letter, finds the writer has correctly deduced that he’ll think of the number 658.  He claims that the number holds no significance but, disturbed at being so well anticipated by someone unknown to him, asks if Gurney will look into things.  It’s an awesome hook, the impossible angle to it reeks of genius manipulation, and I can believe Verdon got a four book deal on this concept alone.

The problem with hooks, though, is that you need to hang something on them, and there are so many difficulties with everything that follows, I’m not even sure where to begin.  Let’s start with Gurney, who has signed up for art appreciation courses following his early retirement:

Despite his pre-course assumption that his greatest challenge would be staying awake, he found the instructor, Sonya Reynolds, a gallery owner and artist of regional renown, riveting.

The old ‘hooked into esoteric past-time by fascinating mentor’ card, eh?  Great, that could work really well.  It’s a good twist to have the role model who inspires this unexpected fascination be an older woman, too, so let’s hear about her insight and enthusiasm that inspires Dave so much (this immediately follows the above):

She was not conventionally beautiful, not in the archetypal Northern European Catherine Deneuve mode.  Her mouth was too pouty, her cheekbones overly prominent, her nose too strong.  But somehow the imperfect parts were unified into a uniquely striking whole by large eyes of a deep smoky green and by a manner that was completely relaxed and naturally sensual.

Yup, that’s why he finds her riveting.  And with this out of the way in the first chapter, there is never any need to allude to her knowledge or enthusiasm or…anything ever again.  Gurney sees all the women he encounters — except his wife, who’s there to make him feel awkward except when she happens to kick-start part of the plot — in sexual terms (even the insightful, intelligent Sergeant Wigg only becomes interesting when he notes her ‘interesting eyes and finely sculpted mouth’).  And if Dave Gurney doesn’t want to fuck you, Verdon ensures you’re either a moron or an asshole.

I could pick any other character at random (two of them look like Tom Cruise and are there to shout out stupid things to prove how clever Gurney is…and also to fill some pages so that someone of average intelligence doesn’t just go “Uh, surely it was just done like this…”) but let’s take, say, District Attorney Kline — a pen-pushing politician who has no idea what it’s like out there on the front line if ever there was one — who when Gurney suggests that the killings they face might have ritual significance responds thus:

“Satanic?” Kline’s expression of conventional horror poorly concealed his appetite for the media potential of such a motive.

Because of course only genius hunter Dave Gurney could possibly understand the linguistic finesse of the word “ritual”.  And it’s clearly because everyone else is so wide of the mark, lacking his finely-honed skills, the skills that made him the man he is, the man’s man, the manliest of men, that they need him brought in on this case…because he’s the best, the absolute best, and there’s no-one else in law enforcement to touch him.  Honestly, if I worked in law enforcement in the United States, I’d be taking out a class action lawsuit for defamation after reading this.  Dave Gurney is a moron, and that no-one else in wherever the hell this shit-pile is set can come anywhere close to this level of genius and insight shows how poor Verdon’s characterisation and plotting really is, so let’s get into that next.

The main problems under investigation run thus: 1) the above-mentioned letter with the impossible number-guess, 2) a second letter delivered to the same man who the killer phones to tell him is in his mailbox, asking him to pick another number only for that to also be in the as-yet-unread letter, and 3) a “footprints vanishing in the middle of a snowy field” murder.  None of this is resolved with detection, all of it coming in a sort of inspired moment of unrelated insight towards the end…and if you’re hoping for a false solution or for these suddenly-grasped straws to be incorrect, well, saddle up and ride on.  And you would have been hoping for that, as was I, because these solutions are — at best — lazily basic.

This matters for several reasons, not least because it represents the diminution of the need for intelligent plotting which has usually been at the core of this sort of undertaking.  When the police called in Poirot or Fell they had a genuinely baffling mystery that required the egalitarian approach of an outside perspective of someone who was able to look at things differently.  Here, the police call in Gurney because John Verdon has a character called Dave Gurney he wants us to think is awesome.  He in no way establishes the bona fides for this character at any point — it’s more like boner fides, as already explained — and there’s nothing approaching the regimen or supposed method of a professional who commands the respect Gurney does.  His entire approach is just a garbled melee rather than a logical process that lays each method perfectly clear, making his brilliance difficult to buy.

And here’s where the problems move away from being Gurney’s shortfalls and become Verdon’s.  When Gurney realises the solutions to the above after 300 pages and three deaths he does just that: he realises.  There’s nothing about his experience or his skill set that makes him the one to come to this conclusion…he’s the protagonist, so he has to protagonise — Verdon has no way to end his own plot otherwise.  And, fuck, don’t even get me started on the motive behind all of this; I just don’t have the words for how so, so far beyond pure and utter bullshit that is.  It makes me weak just to contemplate it.  Early on I had hope for Verdon’s writing in spite of some of the above being evident, and it was bolstered by a moment where Gurney reflects

If you don’t know where to being your own story, why the hell are you here?

I can’t begin to tell you how unfortunate it is that this line remains in the published book.  Because here — last one, I promise — is where the problems move away from being Verdon’s and become something bigger again.  This was published by Penguin in the UK — Penguin Books, you’ve definitely heard of them — and yet at no point did a professional proof-reader, editor, or anyone else from that highly-esteemed company think to raise any concerns over writing like this:

“Back at Fordham they used to say you looked like Robert Redford in All the President’s Men.  Still do — haven’t changed a bit!  If I didn’t know you were forty-seven like me, I’d say you were thirty!”

Quite apart from the fact that Redford was 40 years old in that movie, no-one actually talks like this, even in the ultra-false setting of a decent puzzle plot…so why is this and so much more tone deaf awfulness retained here?  The writing is horrible, which doubtless comes from Verdon’s own callowness in this area, fine, but why was nothing done to even attempt to rustle this into shape?  is it because by flooding a market with review copies the publisher could guarantee enough pre-release praise to stick in the front of the paperback to con the unsuspecting into wasting their money on this?  Well, now I’m stepping out of my bounds, so let’s finish…

Man, there’s so much more to say — manly statements like “I’m ninety percent sure — which is as sure as I get about anything” are a drinking game in their own right — but mainly this is an insult to the impossible crime subgenre, and insult to the intelligence of the average reader, an insult to people who actually do this for a living, and an insult to you in genuinely appearing to make the case that this is a book you should read at the exclusion of absolutely anything else.  No, I’ve never published a novel and so maybe I shold shut up, hey?  The fact that I at least recognise my own efforts aren’t worth inflicting on anyone else still sort of makes me a pyrrhic winner here — believe me when I say that having that made clear to me was neither necessary nor an experience I’d wish anyone else to share.


See also

Literally anything else; think of a friend you regret losing touch with and give them a call or send them an email, perhaps.  I’d like to imagine something good came out of me reading this.


For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Madman’s Room from last week because both feature characters whose ability to foretell the future is explained rationally.

37 thoughts on “#273: Think of a Number (2010) by John Verdon

  1. Hi JJ,
    Having given up on reading this book, I can only agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments.
    However, we all know that it is the publishing house that makes the most money – and if the marketing team can promote it they’ll sell it. (It’s an international best seller – whatever that means).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, I’ve got no problem with publishing houses making money — the more they make, the more likely it is they’ll take a punt on something brilliant — it’s just surprising and worrying that something with so many inherent flaws and downright shortcomings as this can a) be published, b) have so little effort put into it in the first place, and c) actually be treated as if it achieves anything of note. Penguin are better than this and know better…I’m astounded to find them involved in this in any way, shape or form, as it has all the hallmarks of a poorly-managed piece of vanity self-publishing.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Your experience with this bestseller is a gentle reminder why I tend to avoid contemporary crime-fiction like the plague, because they really have nothing to offer to readers such as us. Only downside is that you’re obviously going to miss out on or two good writers, who actually got it right, but the prospect of having to wade through dozens of these “gems” in order to find one is the stuff of nightmares. So I’ll stick with the (neo) classics.

    I wish you a speedy recovery from this ordeal!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’d picked this up as an entry in my on-going search for a decent modern impossible crime novel for your good self, but it was so astronomically bad that I didn’t want to stain that undertaking by including this among its ranks. My holiday reading usually turns out to be terrible anyway, so it wasn’t a complete loss or total surprise — the overwhelming sensation is one of complete stupefaction not only that this was published but also that 26 people found something positive to say about it…


  3. …’boner fides’ – Oh man it must have been bad.
    Sorry you had to go through this friend, I’m here for emotional support if needed.

    In other thought: ‘Here, the police call in Gurney because John Verdon has a character called Dave Gurney he wants us to think is awesome.’ – This kind of thing gets to me so much, it’s that idea that if you just have the barest barest trappings and watered down version of detective fiction/ brilliant detective that it will work somehow on the audience. It’s an insult as you say and just furthers poor ideas about genre fiction.


    • The one good thing I can say about it is that it raised £3 for the British Heart Foundation…and since that’s where my copy is heading, it may even raise them £6. Which is £7.20 with Gift Aid.

      The watered down genius outsider trope is a product of the weird limbo crime fiction finds itself in at present: people tried ripping off Jack Reacher, then cassic detection came back into vogue, so it feels like the aim is now to establish a Jack Reacher: Detective series that’ll please both sides. Alas, there’s a reason Gideon Fell never headbutted anyone, and if Jack Reacher burns down a house he’ll never be as downright awesome about it as Fell was…East is East, etc.

      For this exemplified perfectly, read [or, rather do not read under any circumstances] the books Mason Cross is putting out, starting with The Killing Season; they are deeply, deeply hilariously bad…and rather popular, too, it seems. Man, my finger is really not on the pulse of popular culture…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Maybe its something to do with just wanting easy reads? But since when did sexism and muscles constitute easy reads. It’s such a mess by the looks of it. But if BHF can benefit from sexist badly written crime then there is some good in the world.


  4. I feel like you could’ve written a similar review to about 80% of contemporary thrillers. While I haven’t read this one it does not seem significantly worse than most of what is getting published every year.

    Apparently people still love serial-killers and experts on serial-killers, and lousy writing and sexism… and they seem to despise proper detection and mystery novels where the plot actually makes any sense.

    Like you I do occasionally take a chance on modern thrillers, just to be disappointed nine out of ten times. The last one I tried was “The Dying Game” by Asa Avdic which was advertised as mixture of “And Then There Were None” and Orwell’s “1984” and needless to say, did not satisfy in either regard.


    • Aaaah, dammit, I had hopes for The Dying Game — that’s been on my TBB since I first heard it was getting an English translation. Sure, it’s never going to be ATTWN, but there’s definitely scope to expand on that basic idea with the current use of surveillance technology, etc. and go in an interesting direction. Didn’t work out like that, eh?

      And I don’t think people necessarily despise detection or the trappings thereof — the huge success of current authors like Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin show there’s still interest in seeing a logical plot put together in a rigorous way — I’m inclined to believbe if anything the interest in that sort of thing is responsible for something that doesn’t quite fit the standard mould being tried and hence crap like this getting published: Lee Child was a renegade when the first couple of Jack Reacher books came out because there’d been nothing like that for aaaages. The difficulty modern publishing has is that everyone tries to put out something “new” at apparently the same time, or at least in waves, so we get The Girl Who/In/On/Without/etc for about 18 months, and then the “new” thing is tried by everyone at once and we get The Narrator Who Can’t Be Trusted for 18 months and then we get something “new” for the next 18 months and so on.

      Most of this stuff dies on contact with the reading public, too, so some “new voice” has to be found to replace them and then it’s just rinse and repeat. If anything, the popularity of this type of book is simply the result of the fact that this sort of book isn’t actually that popular. Wrap your head around that…!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The last one I tried was “The Dying Game” by Asa Avdic which was advertised as mixture of “And Then There Were None” and Orwell’s “1984” and needless to say, did not satisfy in either regard.

        I knew it! Remember when you told me about The Dying Game, JJ? I warned you to be very cautious, because the synopsis was loaded with warning bells and whistles. One of them is that a closed-circle situation was confused with a locked room mystery and the other was the description of the very modern protagonist. Suggesting that the plot could very well be tinged with the very worst of the modern crime novel. And that the book was written by a Swede was another dead giveaway that it probably wouldn’t be all that good. 😉

        You can read my warning HERE (last comment at the bottom of the page).


        • I remember, I remember…I had some hope for it, but I think this experience is going to make me a little more skeptical about this kind of thing. Or maybe it won’t; I have proven to be very bad at learning from my mistakes in the past…


      • “Out of interest, though, is there an impossible aspect to The Dying Game, or is it just a closed-circle setup?”

        There is no impossibilty and even the closed circle setup only takes up the middle part of the story which is just about one third of the whole narrative.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, no, not really, but I was so disheartened after writing this that implying that it — one of the stupidest and laziest books I’ve ever read — shared any commonality with The Madman’s Room — one of the most enjoyable and genuinely clever books I’ve read in a long time — seemed an insult too far. I’ll come up with something better later, but it’ll have to do for now 🙂


  5. What does it say about me that I get so much pleasure from watching you suffer?

    I see that Ruth Ware, the author of the execrable The Woman in Cabin 10 – which earned the the label “the modern Agatha Christie” – has a new book out, “her best thriller yet”! It’s ludicrous to feel superior – our tastes just differ – but it sticks in my craw when these books get labeled as “mysteries” or the author gets compared to a brilliant classic writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, if it helps, console yourself that 80 years from now it is unlikely that anyone is going to be marketed as “the new Ruth Ware” or “the new John Verdon” unless things are getting seriously desperate. I mean, history will now make a fool of me, with Ruth Ware turning out to be the most prolific, successful, and brilliant novelist the genre has ever seen…but, hey, I wouldn’t mind that now I come to think about it, so it’s win/win!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Oh, God, this sounds awful. Between your experience here—my experience with Nine Man’s Murder—and Brad’s experience with The Woman in Cabin 10—”God help us…in the future,” to quote the best bad movie ever made.

    Though I have to say it’s more fun to read the reviews of the bad ones…

    Hey, I’ve noticed a Queenian pattern here: all of these titles involve numbers. Harry Stephen Keeler, is that you, you old pernickety rapscallion?

    I will say that if you’re interested in an impossible crime plot involving an impossibily chosen number, the Columbo TV movie Columbo Goes to the Guillotine is difficult to beat…

    Liked by 1 person

    • DAMMIT, KARL! Now I need to track down that Columbo episode! 😀

      And, it’s official: I shall now avoid all modern crime novels that have or relate to numbers in their title. Except Paul Halter’s A 139 pas de la mort if that ever gets a translation from Locked Room International, the reasons for this exception being hopefully beyond the need for explanation.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m sure you’ll like it. The main locked room trick, while workable and even a little shrewd, is strictly amateur hour, but the main psychic demonstration is masterful.

        I believe TomCat reviewed this one a few years back… One of the main characters is based on one of his favorite real-life sleuths, the psychic-busting James Randi.


          • I like Randi a great deal and deeply appreciate his service to exposing fools and charlatans.

            With that said, from time to time I find his ego and conceitedness a trifle off-putting (especially when he can himself be fooled, as the documentary a few years back revealed). To be sure, he’s probably our closest thing to a real-life “great detective,” but then I’ve often wondered how many of the great sleuths I’d actually like if I met them in real life…

            Still, in spite of my caveats, let me second your appreciation for him.

            Not quite sure what you’d make of his counterpart in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, though…


            • If by your reference to him being fooled you mean the fact of his partner not being in the country legally…well, I’d argue firstly that’s not really a reflection of what he does professionally and secondly that he did actually know as he himself admitted in that same documentary.

              CGttG is gonna hev to wait until I have time to track it down online, but I can believe there’s great scope for that sort of insightful brilliance in an antagonist. A magician bad guy — in the sense of someone who has knowledge of hos to mislead people in the ways of stage magic and charlatanism — is almost a more compelling idea than a magician detective…


            • No, of course you’re right (though, if I’m remembering correctly, while he does say that, even the filmmakers aren’t sure whether he was telling the truth or not there); I just… How does one say this? I’m reading his Conjuring right now (good read–I recommend it), and I just find that ego off-putting. But he’s gifted at what he does, and I appreciate his work.

              I’ll be coy on the subject, but the Randi character is not the villain in CGttG, just so you know. I’ll wait to say more until you’ve seen it! 🙂


              Liked by 1 person

            • Yeah, I know what you mean; sometimes it can be difficult to retain your innocent respect for someone once you get a sense of what they’re like as a person rather than simply a writer or a debunker or a scientist or whatever. I’m saved this consideration most of the time as most of the authors I read or celebrities I have any interest in are well and truly shuffled off this mortal coil…and the rest I tentatively check out on social media or in interviews and tend to withdraw to blissful ignorance at the first sign of anything questionable…!

              Liked by 1 person

      • Ahh—this opens up a whole new can of worms, but, as much as I love The Room—and I do—Wiseau is just boring for long stretches. When the unintentionally funny, oft-compiled parts come, they’re hilarious, but you must first put up with long stretches of tedium (Wiseau’s wacky sex scenes) to get to them.

        Whereas I think Plan 9 from Outer Space (hey, a number again!) is an unintentional laugh riot from beginning to end…

        Liked by 2 people

        • Weirder than the sex scenes is that bit where they randomly throw an American football around while dressed in tuxedos. But we veer off-topic…tempting an off topic though it is!

          Liked by 1 person

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