THINK OF A NUMBER: THE NOVELS OF JOHN VERDON
John Verdon is the author of four bestselling crime /thriller novels. He is now seventy four ( his birthday was on New Year’s Day) and he has, since 2010, published four best -selling and critically acclaimed mystery thrillers. His first novel was published when he was sixty eight – no mean feat – and one therefore of particular significance and relevance to me and any other aspiring writer of advanced years. He is also an interesting character, to put it mildly; his website is well worth a visit.
There’s clearly a story there and the biographical information on his website makes interesting reading. Verdon’s c.v.,in so far as we get one, is impressive. He has worked/been employed/pursued interests including early spells as a theme park stunt man and a martial arts fighter before going into advertising in New York as a copy writer, a career he pursued “from the alcoholic sixties to the workaholic nineties.” Then, in an abrupt change of career, after 32 years and aged 56, Verdon took up woodworking and spent a decade making Shaker-style furniture, acquiring in passing a commercial pilot’s license. Together with his wife he moved out of the city to the western Catskill mountains in upstate New York, where inter alia he began serious reading and eventually turned to writing. Almost a modern Renaissance man.
His website is tightly controlled, but reasonably informative. The biographical section includes a brief essay on “Why I write Thrillers” and a useful and informative FAQ section. There’s also an album of images of the Catskills, which provides a pictorial backdrop to the location for his novels. His Facebook page ( 13,000 plus followers – including, recently, me) contains a link to a lengthy and revealing radio interview conducted after the release of his fourth novel “Peter Pan must Die” in July 2014 as well as to a couple of reviews of his novels. A quick trawl of the Internet reveals few other reviews or interviews though there are many more extracts from reviews of all four books in the Books section on the website. Most reviews on Amazon are favourable, many highly so ( consistently four or five stars) though there are some criticisms of his portrayal of female characters (I’m not sure how serious or relevant this criticism is – “Women are from Venus, Men from Mars”,etc. For me that’s not far from complaining that villains are portrayed too one-dimensionally as bad).
Verdon writes that, after moving to the Catskills and having more time on his hands, he began stepping up reading fiction, becoming interested in and absorbed by crime fiction – “fascinated by the form itself, the mechanics of constructing the hidden crime and gradually exposing it.” Eventually, prompted by his wife, he began to write his own crime novel ( starting at age 65, as he confirms in his radio interview). The result, after two years was “ Think of a Number, ” which proved an astounding success. He has followed this with three further successful and bestselling novels in what has become a series in real time featuring, as hero, a retired New York cop, Dave Gurney.
Verdon gives no indication of other creative writing such as short stories or flash fiction before embarking on his first Gurney novel, nor of involvement with some creative writing course or self- help writing group. Given that he was an advertising copywriter he could plead that he was well qualified to write in any event, but that was a decade before. I would think he spent several years more than the two mentioned honing his writing skills in the traditional fashion and perhaps trying some novel prototypes – the finished products are simply too polished and well crafted. I know from my own experience that the saying about needing 10,000 hours input to become a writer has a lot of truth in it . Some advice or more detail about his development as a writer would be welcome, though this is in no way a criticism of his fine novels.
In “Why I write Thrillers,” Verdon gives an account of his approach to crime writing. His thinking is along fairly predictable lines ( at least as far as I am concerned) , containing a lot of sound common sense. For anyone interested the brief piece merits a close read. Verdon sees detective stories as essentially moral in tone in that the truth generally wins out. A crime novel has two separate but interlinked themes, the execution of the crime and the unravelling of the mystery around it by the detective. He goes on to discuss the complexity of ordinary life in general, including the difference POVs make, where there are at once two sides ( at least) to most matters – the analogy he uses is that of the different POVs between the driver of a car overtaken at speed and the driver of the overtaking car. Writing should reflect this.
Life is complicated – and complex. At another level he points out in the radio interview that , in real life, characters, including detectives, are living people with families and relationships and events happening in parallel and interacting with each other. This is/should be, reflected in a writer’s work and for example he points to the ongoing tensions between Gurney and his spouse reflected in all the novels ( a dynamic relationship which, as he points out in the FAQ answers, is very popular with his readers). He stresses repeatedly the importance of conveying in a novel the different layers of reality and their complex interactions. He practices what he preaches. His novels all present a rich tapestry of plot, character and background, skilfully interwoven. Before I knew anything about him this was something that struck me several chapters into the first novel of his I read ( “ Let the Devil Sleep” – the third in the series) and for me this is an aspect of his writing which I like very much and which I think he handles very well – certainly better than many other writers.
The four novels are written in real time, with hero Dave Gurney and his wife progressing and developing through them. To give an overall flavour, it’s worth quoting the New York Journal of Books: “ As incredible as it seems, a relatively new author with no law enforcement background, has created a protagonist with insight and skills that rival the best crime solvers of all time.” Perhaps somewhat OTT, but the novels are all extremely good, well, indeed ingeniously , plotted, thoughtful and easy to read. One of Verdon’s favourite authors is Conan Doyle, which may account for some of those well worked plots.
A point to reflect on, incidentally, about the blurb quoted, is how much is now required of a “new” writer to break through. I ‘ve recently read two books by different but well established and successful crime writers – one female, one male. Neither hold much of a candle to Verdon’s books. I’ve also been mystified as to how a recently published first novel ( with the threat of several more to come in a series) ever got to be published. The conclusion is that an aspiring writer has to be extremely good – or extremely lucky – to succeed. ( As a sub-text to this, while former law enforcement officials, or spies or intelligence agents, or even pathologists, can regurgitate their knowledge in detail, this is no guarantee of a good read. How many dreadful space filling details have I come across in less than impressive works by mediocre but successful writers. Verdon has a son a NYPD sergeant, which undoubtedly helped with some of the details and tradecraft.. But Verdon also has talent.)
To write too much about the novels would be to spoil, so I’ll confine myself to a brief sentence or two on each. There are, in any event, good introductory synopses of each on the website. In “ Think of a Number,” Dave Gurney, already a much decorated celebrity cop in New York city , has retired to upstate New York where he is prevailed upon to look into a case in which people receive anonymous letters which appear to be from someone who can read their minds. In “ Shut Your Eyes Tight” a bride is found decapitated at her wedding . There is an obvious suspect, but he has disappeared. In “Let the Devil Sleep” a serial killer – the “Good Shepherd” -reappears after a decade. Where has he been? Why did he stop, and why has he restarted? Finally, in “Peter Pan must Die,” Gurney must investigate an “impossible murder” of a politician – perhaps the perfect crime. All four plots are clever and in none are things as they seem. One common feature, which perhaps goes back to the author’s liking for Conan Doyle, is that in all four the enlightened amateur ( albeit a retired cop) , solves cases the official detectives couldn’t.
The novels are stand -alone though Verdon recommends starting with the first. I began with the third and then read the other three in sequence ( over several weeks). The plots are intricate and ingenious. As well as Gurney, several characters recur – his wife, an offbeat unorthodox county policeman and a couple of law officers not enamoured of Gurney and his style. The villains, who are intellectually formidable and ruthless are normally presented in the third person only.
There has been little activity on either Verdon’s website or Facebook page since “ Peter Pan” appeared over a year ago, though there are references to another novel in gestation. Let’s hope so.