This book begins with the main character, a retired homicide detective named Gurney, being contacted by an old college friend who received a mysterious letter asking him to think of a number less than 1000 and then to open the smaller envelope inside. He picks 658, and weirdly, the number in the small envelope is 658. The letter contains vague threats to reveal his deep dark secrets of the past. Great hook to start with.
I was all over the place in deciding where to rate this. The critics who call it trite are correct. The fans who say it is a page turner full of twists are right. In the end, I went with the fact that I raced through it to see what was coming next. That meant it was entertaining enough to hold my interest throughout, despite its flaws, and the point of the book is to entertain. Those flaws are enough to keep it from the 5-star category, but it has more positives than negatives and merits a strong 4.
On the plus side, the author has outstanding descriptive talent. Whatever he describes or characterizes comes to life: facial expressions, weather conditions, the decor of a room. You feel like you’re right there. He has a large and sophisticated vocabulary which he uses almost surreptitiously, without brandishing it like a weapon. Since he was an ad executive, that is perhaps to be expected. He writes dialogue better than most first-time writers, too. The pace is fast and there are plenty of twists. It was also well-edited, with no typos or grammar errors in a long book that I noticed. That’s rare. They even used née and né correctly. Call it a guilty pleasure, but I enjoyed it the whole way despite the problems.
The negatives are many. The characters are all totally hackneyed. The retired detective who neglected his family while becoming the best serial killer hunter in NYPD history. Every boss is a total condescending jerk. Virtually every male in the book is hostile, every remark accompanied by a smirk, a wicked grin, sarcasm, belligerence. Every woman involved in solving the murders is calm and intelligent, and, of course, attractive. The D.A. is a smarmy politician. The serial killer is maniacally brilliant. You get the picture. The plot steals from every thriller ever written: Sherlock Holmes, Psycho, etc.
Another problem is the lack of character development. Gurney is the only one developed at all, and he is such a cliché that you knew how that family life situation was going to resolve itself long before the end. All the others remain cardboard cutouts throughout.
I saw all the blurbs of high praise on the back cover and flyleaf and had an uneasy feeling. They were all from fellow authors. Not one from a critic. Those whores will trade effusion like pederasts trade porn. Okay, so I mentioned plot twists, which are praised no end by those authors. In my view good mysteries fall into two categories. First are those that have you fooled the whole time and when the big reveal comes at the end, you exclaim to yourself “Wow! I didn’t see that coming. That is so clever.” The other is the type that feeds you clues along the way at just the right pace so you solve it just before the detective does in the story. The self-congratulatory pride you feel is a major part of the fun, much like a clever crossword or acrostic puzzle. Like those, the key for the latter type is the Goldilocks rule: not too hard and not too easy. The mystery has to be just right. Here, it wasn’t.
This is going to sound like bragging, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean to point out a major weakness in the story. I figured out all the so-called mysteries and twists almost immediately. How did the sender of that letter know or guess the number 658? Not hard. Then later he predicts the number 19. I got that too. Who was the killer? As soon as the killer was introduced, I knew we had our man. The footprints in the snow that end nowhere? Yup, that one, too. Maybe I’ve just read too many mysteries, or my FBI background helped, but really, I think it’s just that the mysteries aren’t all that clever. Still, maybe it was just because I wanted to get to the end to be proven right in my conclusions, but I found myself pulled inexorably to the denouement and enjoying the ride.