Tag Archives: Ted Bundy

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Think of a Number: A Novel by John Verdon (Broadway, $14.00, 448 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the process of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at today’s criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he’s a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the tow, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial murder case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope left in their home; this envelope contains a piece of paper with the very number they thought of written down in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to the mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed on a page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s very ably assisted by Madeleine, the spouse who often sees the very things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his tricks with numbers, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict if twisted plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, luckily, will not even come close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style suspense thriller.   It’s easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and addictive story – especially so, as it’s a debut novel.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a large block of hours on your schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin to look forward to Mr. Verdon’s next satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A trade paperback version of Think of a Number was released on June 5, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download, and as an unabridged audiobook, read by George Newbern.

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Reeling in the Years

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed.   In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun.   I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.

Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot.   There are two protagonists.   There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution.   Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls.   Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone.   Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop.   The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.

Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller.   It is interesting enough, but just enough.

Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman.   When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort.   Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life:  “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory.   It was like a story she knew about someone else.”

A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy.   That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom.   Something key is missing here as the author admits:  “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”

Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution.   The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her.   Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.

A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete.   The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.

In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success.   However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Numbers Game

Think of a Number by John Verdon (Crown, July 2010, 432 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the processes of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at the modern criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he is a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired Detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the two, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial killer case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope; this envelope contains the very number they thought of written in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to his mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed onto a  page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s ably assisted by Madeleine who often sees things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his numbers tricks, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, quite fortunately, will not come even close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style thriller.   It is easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and engaging story.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a number of hours on one’s schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin – as this reader has – to count the months until Mr. Verdon delivers his next very satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Only Us

I’m coming home again, home again / And I hear you calling me home again / I am coming home again    Peter Gabriel

When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things.    Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

So here is what we know about The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold.   It was first published in 2002 and took seven full years to gain some traction.   Then it belatedly became a best-seller in book form and was made into a relatively successful film.   Some claim that the unique story was first recognized by young adults who gravitated toward the tale of a young woman who was killed by a serial murderer; a girl who monitors the search for her killer from heaven, while also monitoring the activities of her father, mother, maternal grandmother and sister.

Sebold herself has indicated that she wrote the story in order to give life to the invisible victims, the young long-haired women, killed by serial killers like Ted Bundy.   We also know, by a quick glance at a few websites where readers can post their comments, that most readers seem to experience either a love or hate relationship with this novel.   Which makes me different, I suppose…   I didn’t find The Lovely Bones to be one of the best stories I’ve read nor one of the worst.   I would not assign it an A or an F but, if placed on a polygraph, I’d give it – at best – a C+ to B- grade.

Much credit goes to Sebold for fashioning a unique story that starts off so, well, so tragically.   We feel the death of Susie Salmon and take it personally.   More than anything, we want justice and revenge.   We want to see her killer, Mr. Harvey, captured and punished and this is why we keep reading.   And this is where the problems begin.   After such a great start, the story seems to plod along for chapter after chapter.  

As with the twins in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, ghosts are real in Sebold’s novel.   They appear to the living “like an unexplained breeze,” or an image that’s there for just a second.   But I wished so very much that this story – which at its end still felt like the skeleton of a story – had been written by Niffenegger who would have added flesh and blood.   Perhaps the biggest flaw with Bones is that the villain eventually meets, or is given, justice in an artificial manner that comes off as totally fake…  It won’t be disclosed here, but it’s an inside joke on something that occurs earlier in the telling, something juvenile.

Sebold’s strength is in creating an artificial world, if not a universe, in which the living and the dead miss each other.   She uses her story to assure us that life goes on (even in death), that love conquers all, and that unless we move forward each day, “Life is a perpetual yesterday for us.”   Yet, I doubt that I would purchase another work by this author and (based on the audio excerpts I’ve heard) I would certainly not be interested in reading The Almost Moon.

This review is based on the unabridged 10.5 hour audiobook (9 CD) version of The Lovely Bones ($19.98 U.S./ $24.98 Canada), read by the author and purchased by the reviewer.

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