Think of a Number is a contemporary crime mystery/thriller of exceptional, no, singular power. This is partly because the framework of suspense is assembled with exquisite skill, and also because not just one but three separate elements of the mystery appear to be physically impossible. The suspense, once staged with such painstaking care, is irresistible, and it powers the story through plot turns with nail biting tension well into the final chapters. Another powerful feature is that we get to know some of the characters quite well before they become victims of the storyline. This injects extra suspense early on, as well as a kind of plot intimacy that adds to the appeal.
This story is distinctive, and the reason is Gurney, our lead protagonist. He is a highly decorated detective who has been retired a few years from NYPD. Pleas from an old friend draw him into the most bizarre mystery (it turns out) he has ever seen. Eventually his links to NYPD are re-established—sort of. But Gurney is unlike any cop you’ve ever seen. For his influence goes well beyond the decorations mentioned earlier. He was, and remains in the story, a legend in his own time—a kind of super detective. Suspension of disbelief is easy in this case, and it allows the author to establish Gurney’s relationship relative to ordinary cops as something akin to a professor presiding over a class of squabbling kindergartners. This works amazingly well, creating a dynamic of top notch dialogue that propels the story from one unexpected development to another.
The prose is also a strength aspect of the book. The writing is energetic, but the author often uses a kind of languid conciseness that shines for revealing characters. Here’s a gem of a sentence from chapter four.
It was exactly that sense of carefully crafted carelessness—the ego-driven desire to appear ego-free—that Mellery exemplified in person.
As a result, for the most part, the characterizations are excellent: vivid and believable and immensely entertaining, nearly as engaging as the story itself. The sad exception is Madeleine, Gurney’s wife. Strangely, she is unconvincing and a total mismatch for Gurney. Worse yet, her high brow aloofness makes her an inconceivable candidate as a police officer’s wife. To be fair, the Madeleine character at first is successful because her enigmatic dialogue intrigues us. But this gets old in a hurry and, before long, it’s clear there’s nothing there apart from a pouting resentment of Gurney’s return to crime solving. Fortunately, the story doesn’t need Madeleine, and it would be easy to overlook this flaw except that the author has Gurney in the final chapter attributing insights and qualities to her that don’t bear scrutiny relative to the Madeleine we know from earlier chapters.
This issue with the Madeleine character dovetails with the book’s other weakness, which is its conclusion. Not the mystery’s denouement, which is satisfying, but the way the author ties up loose ends after the mystery is solved. Here, the author loses his way and has Gurney succumb to a paralyzing and longwinded episode of self doubt and overcooked self analysis. This degenerates into a genuine case of psychobabble, something the reader is not looking for, certainly does not need, and is surprised to be slapped with after such an otherwise excellent story. It’s a little like skiing to the gold medal, then shocking your supporters by shooting yourself in the foot at the awards ceremony.
Think of a Number is a superb story and a creative achievement. It is as deep as it is exciting. But the conclusion disappoints. Good editing would have reduced the final twenty pages to, at most, four.
Rob Costelloe (Edelweiss)