A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF – Lawrence Block ( Reviewed By Ted Feit)

The Alcoholics Anonymous program is designed to provide sustenance and
guidance to those seeking to remain sober.  Its 12-Step program is
meant to provide them with a moral roadmap to atone for past abuse,
mistakes and sins.  In this early-days Matthew Scudder novel, it
instead leads to a series of murders.

An alcoholic himself, Matthews enters AA in an effort to stay away
from alcohol, which had basically ruined his life.  Soon he meets Jack
Ellery, another AA member with whom he grew up in The Bronx.  While
Matthew became a cop, Jack went the other way, living a life of crime.
Now he is trying to take the seventh and eighth steps of the Program
by making amends.  The effort gets him murdered, shot in the head and
mouth, presumably by someone who is afraid Jack’s endeavors would
expose the killer for an act done in the past.  Jack’s sponsor retains
Matthew to look into some of the people Jack went to in his attempts
to make amends, if only to eliminate the innocent.

The novel is a look into not only a murder investigation, but other
things as well: Matthew’s development as a sober person; love; loss;
nostalgia; and most importantly, human relationships.  Written with a
fine eye for dialog and penetrating insight into the characters, the
book is an excellent example of why the Matthew Scudder series is so
highly regarded, and it is recommended.

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THE MOST DANGEROUS THING – Laura Lippman (Reviewed by Gloria Feit)

The new standalone novel from Laura Lippman was, to this reader,
unlike anything this wonderful author had written to this point.
[Among her more recent ones, “I’d Know You Anywhere” and “What the
Dead Know” still stand out in my memory and resonate with me.]  The
present work is not really a mystery [although there is a death early
on in the book] nor procedural, but instead a series of in-depth
character studies which will be difficult to match.

The author takes her time recreating and juxtaposing scenes from the
past with those of the present, from the time when “everything was
perfect until the moment it wasn’t,” in the lives of five youngsters
in their early teens, three brothers and two young girls.  Ultimately
each of these, along with their parents and siblings and extended
families, will have their own chapters, describing events which took
place in 1980, in their native Baltimore, with p.o.v. changes from one
character to another and from those early years to the present time,
when most of them have grown children of their own, all of it shaped
by one pivotal ‘incident’ [insert your own euphemism] which changes
all of their lives forever.  The reality of the events of that night
is different for each of them, children and parents alike.  And
ultimately it is about secrets kept, or not.

One of the three brothers, Gordon (“Go-Go”) Halloran, nine years old
in 1980 and always the most reckless of the three, although presently
two years sober, leaves the bar at which he has just fallen off the
wagon and does not make it home alive, crashing into a wall at about
100 mph.  There is a question about whether it was a tragic accident,
or something somehow worse.

I found this book [in which, btw, Tess Monaghan makes a cameo
appearance] a departure for this author, and very thought-provoking.
I suspect it too will stay in my memory for a long while.
Parenthetically, I loved Ms. Lippman’s description of one perpetually
angry character who, when counting to ten, started at nine.  But there
are many memorable moments, and personalities, here.

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THE SHADOW OF THE WIND – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A second book featuring Daniel Semper, THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN, is now available.  THE SHADOW OF THE WIND ranks as one of the best I have read.

Posted on July 1, 2010

I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.  Has there ever been an opening sentence so calculated to ensnare the lovers of books?

The Cemetery of Forgotten books is a secret place in Barcelona; the knowledge of its existence is passed from generation to generation.  Daniel Sempere is taken their by his father, a bookseller.  Books, Daniel is told, have souls.  They contain the souls of the author and the souls of all who read them and for whom they inspire dreams. Every time a library or a bookstore closes, the guardians of the books rescue them and protect them until they can be brought back into the light of day.  The first time someone comes to the Cemetery of Forgotten books, they choose a book and it becomes the life-long responsibility of the person who takes it.  The book Daniel chooses is THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Julian Carax.

Daniel is so enthralled by the book that he is determined to find all the other books written by the author. But he finds that someone is ahead of him, finding Carax’s books and destroying them. One day, Daniel, as an adult, is confronted by the man who is determined to erase Carax’s name and existence. Now, Daniel becomes determined to discover the secrets of the man who wrote THE SHADOW OF THE WIND and the man who wants it destroyed.

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is a story filled with joy. Carlos Ruiz Zafon places the narrative in the period after WWII when Spain is controlled by Francisco Franco and there are spies everywhere, watching every moment of an individuals life.  Daniel is shadowed by the police but he is also shadowed by the mysterious figure who wants his book. But this is a book about the power of words to transform lives, to broaden them, and make them richer. And so, there is joy and hope.

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Dave Gruley retired from the homicide unit of the New York City police department with the highest solve rate in the history of the department. When presented with a puzzle, he can’t leave it alone until he has worked his way through it.  There is a dearth of puzzles in his retirement existence on a small farm in upstate New York and boredom led him to give up the the quiet life and return, unofficially, to that most serious of puzzles, discovering the identity of those who decide they hold the power of life and death. One attempt to find such a person nearly cost him his life.   His wife, Madeleine, is happy in their quiet life but she knows that Dave is not.  When Kim Corazon asks Dave to “look over her shoulder” as she works on her graduate thesis, Madeleine encourages him to do so.  Kim’s mother, Connie Clarke, is a journalist whose article about Dave enshrined his reputation and Madeleine thinks  helping Kim is a way to repay the favor.

Kim’s video project is an analysis of the lives of the families who lost someone to the serial killer who called himself the Good Shepherd.  It has been ten years since the killings stopped and, in those years, no information has surfaced that could lead to an identification.  Kim has the ability to draw out her subjects, to humanize the victims, and to make people care  the survivors and to feel their loss.  The thesis is titled “Orphans of Murder.”  Her thesis adviser is so impressed with her project that he contacts RAM, the cable television network.  Kim’s project fits RAM’s demographic.  RAM does want it but Kim is appalled when she sees how the network has sensationalized her  story.  Dave’s role becomes much more than looking over Kim’s shoulder.  One of Kim’s faithful viewers is the Good Shepherd who comes out of the past and begins killing survivors of the original victims.

As he learns the details of these  murders, Dave discovers that the FBI had conducted a directionless investigation, a tragic oversight since the Good Shepherd had designed a plan guaranteed to point law enforcement in the wrong direction.  The Good Shepherd’s return is both a taunt to law enforcement who have never let the cases go completely cold and a chastisement to the media for not letting the devil sleep.

To frighten the greatest number of people, the Good Shepherd issues a
“Memorandum of Intent”. He identifies those with whom he is at war.

“1. If the love of money, which is greed, is the root of all evil, then it follows that the greatest good will be achieved by its eradication.

2. Since greed does not exist in a vacuum but exists in its human carriers, it follows that the way to eradicate greed is to eradicate its carriers.

3. t The good shepherd culls the flock, removing the diseased sheep from the healthy sheep, because it is good to stop the spread of infection.  It is good to protect the good animals from the bad.”

RAM plays a major role in the resurgence of the Good Shepherd in the public eye and ear.  Television demands that both senses be engaged and RAM demands it more than other networks.

LET THE DEVIL SLEEP is the third book in the Dave Gurney series.  the characters are people a reader will want to meet again and again. The stories take a different path even though the series are essentially police procedurals.  Each book is a reflection on a part of the American psyche in the twenty-first century. ” Let the devil sleep ” is an old saying that warns that stirring things up may lead to problems no one sees lurking in the shadows.  But in creating the fictional RAM, the author squares off against one of the most destructive mind sets in the US today.  It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see that RAM is the belligerent cousin of the sly and sneaky Fox.  Manufacturing enemies and drumming up hysteria is the MO of Fox.  Convince the viewers that their greatest enemy is their neighbor and badger people into believing that the Founding Fathers really meant handguns when putting “the right to bear arms”into the Constitution. Divorcing history from politics guarantees that no one notices that the phrase refers to the event that started the American Revolution – the British army collecting the arms of the local militia from the armory leaving the colonists in Boston defenseless against an invading army.

In service to ad revenue and audience numbers, “RAM coverage of the Good Shepherd case created the ultimate trash model for cable: endless mindless debates, amplification of conflict, ugly conspiracy theories, the glorification of outrage,  blame based explanations for everything”.  The Bible says we must love our neighbor.  The “RAM” model also appeals to our emotions.  “”…emotion created its own logic, how anger was invariably the mother of certainty.  It is surely one of the great ironies of human nature that when our passions most severely disorient us, we are most positive that we see things clearly.”  Does anyone manufacture phony outrage better than the talking head with the initials S. H.?

In a book about the misuse of the media, John Verdon writes a brilliant indictment of those who swallow everything that is placed in front of them without question because to question requires effort.  The far right in the United States has adopted the politics of a billionaire Australian who moved across the Atlantic after he pulled the rug out from under the British body politic.  The far right insists they are the true American patriots not realizing that they parrot the politics of Rupert Murdoch who increases his wealth at the expense of truth, justice, and the American way.

LET THE DEVIL SLEEP is a must read for anyone with a scintilla of curiosity about the sleeping devil that is a media outlet without conscience,  the only source of information for the majority of Americans.  It is a book that is so good that once started the reader won’t want to put it down until the last page is turned.

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Another chance to meet Poke Rafferty for the first time –

Posted on June 28, 2010

A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, the first of Timothy Hallinan’s Bangkok thrillers, balances family, love, loyalty, and hope against evil that destroys the spirit and sacrifices innocence to perversion.

I read A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART a few years ago. Tim’s post, “Behind the Smiles”, on the Murder is Everywhere blog, sent me back to the book and I am glad it did. I found things I missed in the first reading and I understand some things better because of what I have learned about Thailand through Tim’s posts.

In the blog, Tim writes that Bangkok is the “meat market where the children of the poor, both male and female, go to sell their beauty.” The men who use them believe “there has to be something real, something genuine, behind smiles like those. And there are: poverty and powerlessness.”

A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART is about family, love, loyalty, hope, and the future but it is also about the debasement of the most innocent of humanity and the evil which kills beauty because there is no need for beauty when power is all that matters. Poke’s search for a missing man and his maid leads him to Madame Wing who offers Poke the money he needs to speed along adoption process that will make Miaow, and 8 year-old street child, legally his. The money will help his love, Rose, establish her business. Madame Wing wants Poke to find an envelope but he must not look at the contents. One man did and had to die for doing so. The threads come together in the end to a satisfying, almost, conclusion.

This is a book that the reader won’t want to put down. Since I first read it, I have thought, on occasion, of “Growing-Younger Man”, the man whose face is so tight Poke wonders how he chews. Why do people try so hard to pretend that they haven’t experienced life? Why is youth so envied when it is the young who haven’t yet had the time to develop the life-skills that allow us to keep living?

But that is a minor issue compared to what the author is really serving up. Child pornography is financed by the people who buy it. Anyone who does is as guilty as the men who perform the abuse. They do it for the world wide audience who know without question that what they are seeing on the screen isn’t pretend. And then there is the ultimate question: When is the taking of a life not a wrong? Are all murderers equally guilty? How should society respond when, as Poke says, “The victims were guilty….and the murderers were innocent?”

Finally, the book reminded me that I haven’t told my children enough about the killing fields of Cambodia. As the victims of the holocaust should never be forgotten, neither should the victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  We have an obligation to them as well.

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THE OTHER WOMAN – Hank Phillippi Ryan (Reviewed by Gloria/Ted Feit)

There is more than one “Other Woman” in this new novel by HankRyan [following her 2010 “Drive Time,” the fourth in theterrific Charlotte McNally series].  This time she introduces a new

female journalist, Jane Ryland.  For Jane, the other woman she is
trying to track down is the one she suspects of being the paramour of
Owen Lassiter, the political Golden Boy, charismatic former Governor
and current candidate for Senate, in whose life there is, perhaps,
more than one “other woman.”  For Jane’s not-quite-significant other,
Detective Jake Brogan, of the Boston PD, the “other woman” is the one
whose dead body is discovered [on page one], the second in a week
found in the river, under one of Boston’s bridges, with nothing to
identify her: no ID, not even a pair of shoes, for the police to work
with.  The tabloids have of course dubbed the women as victims of The
Bridge Killer, though the police vehemently deny that a serial killer
is in their midst.  And there will be more “other women” before this
tale is through.Jane’s personal backstory plays an important part in the plot: an
award-winning investigative tv reporter, when she refuses to give up
her source on a scandalous piece she did about a married businessman
magnate who patronized a prostitute, she and the tv station for which
she covered the story are found guilty in the ensuing defamation
lawsuit, a million-dollar verdict the result.  She is, of course,
promptly fired, although she soon manages to get a job as a reporter
on a Boston paper.  On the romantic front, she and Jake find that
their respective professional obligations make any relationship
difficult, at best.Other bodies turn up, and the ‘serial killer’ theory harder to deny.
The political story as well is a tough one for Jane to uncover.  There
are a couple of females who could be described as potential stalkers,
their motives unclear.  But who was the real threat?  And who the
killer?  The author sleekly weaves together several threads, with
corresponding and changing pov, each time leaving the reader with
mini-cliffhangers, and building the suspense to the point that this
reader was racing through the pages in the final third of the book.Ms. Ryan’s bona fides in writing about a media reporter turned print
journalist, involved in a political fray, are hard-won:  She is a
multiple-Emmy-Award-winning reporter on Boston’s NBC affiliate and
former US Senate staffer and political campaign aide, and her
credentials are evident on every page.  I found this a terrific summer
read, and it is highly recommended.
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Yrsa Sigurdadottir writes serious mysteries sprinkled with humor.  Yrsa’s posts on the blog Murder Is Everywhere are frequently filled with lines that are laugh out loud funny.

What’s in a name?

I have just received a request from abroad asking me to provide the phonetic spelling of my name. This caused me some problems since phonetics are only mastered by linguists in Iceland as here we know how all the words sound. What probably instigated this request is my last name: Sigurðardóttir, which looks a bit easier to pronounce than Eyjafjallajökull , but only by a slight margin.
If I am repeating myself I apologise but here we go by first names and last names are mostly used to discern between the Yrsas, Örnólfurs, Þórs, Freyjas and so on. Gravestones, formal letters etc. use full names but you will never see the last name placed in front of the first name as is common elsewhere. The phone book contains full names but you look under the first name. This relates to our last names not being a family name but a patronym, i.e. it says who your father is. My father is Sigurður (his first name) and I am his daughter (dóttir) so I am Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa the daughter of Sigurður. Had I been a son I would have been Sigurðarson or Sigurðsson. This way last names change with every generation, my son and my daughter are Ólafsson and Ólafsdóttir, last names which neither my husband nor I carry, nor do our parents and neither will their children. This system is pretty good in my mind as it removes the existence of fancy family names and increases the likelihood that each person makes their own dent in society based on their own worth. (I feel the need to mention that the photo accompanying this paragraph is not of my family, this particular photo opportunity has never presented itself in our case).
Women never take their husband’s last name when they get married here and never have. It would make no sense at all as although married they remain the daughter of their father and would become the son of another father altogether if they were to assume their husbands name. This coupled with the whole patronym thing, does have its downsides. When my parents moved to Texas to study in the 70s with my sister and me, they were not able to take a hotel room as they had separate last names, in addition to my sister and me having the third last name. To the receptionists at the hotels they had all the makings of a sinful couple accompanied by  someone else’s children to boot. This was not considered good form in the Bible belt at the time. We ended up having more conventional passports issued for the whole family under my father’s last name Þorsteinsson, and were subsequently able to travel without having to camp.
Back to the phonetics. Since I know not a single linguist I had to figure out some way to explain how my name sounded. Needless to say I drew a blank when it comes to my last name. There is a letter in it that does not exist in English: Ð, in small caps: ð and it sounds like trying to say a T when leaving the dentist’s office having had too much aanesthesia which has affected the toungue. So I focused on my first name noting that the last name is never used. Yrsa luckily does not contain any odd letters and originates from Latin, having evolved from the word Ursa meaning female bear. So I was able to use my newly acquired ad-hoc phonetic ability to say my name sounded like Ursa with an I.
This is the version explaining the meaning of my name that I like. There are other much less appealing ones that I keep trying to forget but seem unable to. To give you an idea the definition provided in the book of Icelandic names says it means: wild person, madcap, giantess, grumpy sheep. Not exactly something I want my name associated with.
I was brought up being told that the first woman to be named Yrsa was a Scandinavian queen known as “the mother of kings”. I tried looking this up to boost my self esteem and found the following on Wikipedia:
“Yrsa was a tragic heroine of Scandinavian legend. She appears in several versions relating to her husband, the Swedish king Eadgils, and/or to her father and rapist/lover/husband Halga (the younger brother of king Hroðgar who received Beowulf) and their son Hroðulf. The consensus view is that the people surrounding Yrsa are the same people as those found in Beowulf, and the common claim in Beowulf studies that Hroðulf probably was the son of Halga is taken from the Yrsa tradition. Several translators (e.g. Burton Raffel) and scholars have emended her name from a corrupt line (62) in the manuscript of Beowulf, although this is guesswork.”
The brief paragraph above is at best runner up to the worst written paragraph on Wikipedia, but putting aside the incomprehensible text and connections, what threw me completely was the reference to the rapist-lover-husband. The three are really ill matched and I thought the Wikipedia people must have misunderstood the saga – maybe thinking they were written in phonetics. So I looked up the original saga where Yrsa appears, Hrólfs saga Kraka, and lo and behold the name appears very early on with an explanation of the origin of the name to boot. Only not in the way I expected or wanted, and incredibly enough seem to have been able to forget at some point.
“As time passed queen Ólöf gave birth to a child. It was a girl. Ólöf hated the child in every way. She had a dog called Yrsa and she named the female child Yrsa, after the dog. “

I stopped reading, the rapist-lover-husband hook no longer working. But, being a crime novelist I don’t like leaving readers in the dark so I can tell you what I do remember of Yrsa’s story, she was given pauper farmers for bringing up as their own never knowing that she was a princess. She ended up marrying a king but before you get your mind set on a happy ending you should know that this particular king was her father. Think female Oedipus less the eye poking out dramatics.

If you have time on your hands I suggest looking up the origin and meaning of your name. Who knows, maybe there is another name out there meaning grouchy sheep.
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Due to my continued inability to understand the hows of posting, when I previewed the post, it all became a column on the right side of the page.  My technical crew is unavailable.  As I type this, they are at the Bruce Springsteen concert.  Bruce and I are the same age.  I tell them to get their own music.

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The second book in the Dave Gurney series, after THINK OF A NUMBER, is outstanding.  As SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT opens, it is September and Dave is thinking, again, about his decision to move to a farm in upstate New York.  As a member of the NYPD, Gurney’s reputation is unparalled and he reluctantly admits to himself that he misses the hunt and the discovery of someone who has dared to take the life of another human being.  But his wife, Madeleine, has no doubts, or at least none she is willing to articulate, that the change is for the best.  She no longer has to worry about Dave’s safety but she knows on a level she rarely investigates, that the life she wants isn’t the life her husband needs. The quiet of that September morning is marred by a phone call from  Jack Hardwick, a detective with the NYPD, who is so abrasive that he has few admirers and few who trust him. “…Gurney considered him one of the smartest, most insightful detectives he had ever worked with.”   Jack has been removed from a highly publicized, highly controversial case, the case of the “butchered bride.”  Jillian Perry has just been married to a highly publicized, highly controversial psychiatrist, Scott Ashton.  Within minutes of the ceremony, Jillian is found in a locked cottage, decapitated.  The local police have no doubt that Jillian is the victim of the gardener, Hector Lopez, but Lopez has disappeared and the police have no evidence on which to proceed.  Val Perry, Jillian’s mother and the wife of the highest paid neurosurgeon in the world, wants someone to find Lopez and bring him to justice, even if the justice is of the vigilante order rather than trial by jury.  Val Perry has an endless amount of money available to pay for whatever means leads to her desired end.  Hardwick begs Gurney to talk to Val, to give the case his unique perspective. Although retired, Gurney teaches a seminar at the State Police Academy and this setting allows the author to realistically expound, through Gurney,  on interrogation and the discovery of truth.  “It’s all about maneuvering the target into ‘discovering’ the facts about you that you want him to believe…It’s about making him want to believe you…There’s tremendous believability to facts a person thinks he’s discovered…That’s what I call the Eureka fallacy.  It’s that peculiar trick of the mind that gives total credibility to what you think you’ve discovered on your own.”  SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT is a murder mystery, a thriller, and a psychological examination of motives and actions.  Verdon creates a psychiatrist as a principle character and the tone of the book is set.  It is enthralling. Scott Ashton made his reputation as a world-class leader in psychiatry with the publication of his book The Empathy Trap.  Most people view empathy, the ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings, emotions, and experiences, as a positive character trait.  Scott Ashton has a different take on the quality.  He believes that empathy is the result of a problem with boundaries, that if people care about each other it is because they cannot perceive the difference between “self” and “other”.  Scott’s book  sets out the theory that “the normal human being’s boundary is imperfect in a way that the sociopath’s is perfect.  The sociopath never confuses himself and his needs with anyone else’s and therefore has no feelings related to the welfare of others.” When Verdon puts the eureka factor together with the empathy trap and throws in some of the most seriously damaged people one can imagine, he creates a story that is frightening in its possibilities.  He also creates a book that is impossible to put down. SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT includes the sexual abuse of children, gore, and characters who are far from possible to relate to.  But it is the writing that makes this book far more than the sum of its parts.  Verdon tells a story that could be titillating and horrifying.  Instead, the tale is told clinically and dispassionately, a psychologist/psychiatrist recording facts, not feelings, not emotions. The book will not be to everyone’s taste but… for anyone who enjoys or is fascinated by the workings of the mind and the ability to hide evil, for lack of a better word, in plain sight, SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT should make it into the TBR pile very near the top. The book is not a quick read because Verdon sets out plenty of clues and a few red herrings yet despite the information, it is necessary to pay attention, to think about the characters as their personalities and failings are revealed.  THINK OF A NUMB3R is another must read and, although  Verdon makes frequent reference to the “Mellory case”, he doesn’t reveal anything to spoil the first book and it is not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate the second.

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THINK OF A NUMB3R – John Verdon

The review of THINK OF A NUMBER was originally posted August 9, 2010.  This is the first book in the Dave Gruley series,  the first of three.  They are police procedurals with a definite twist.

Dave Gruley retired from the New York City police department having solved more serial killings than any other detective in the history of the department.  Living quietly in upstate New York with his wife, Madeleine, he is surprised when he is contacted by Mark Mellory, a classmate in college whom he only vaguely remembers.  Mellory, on the other hand, is passing their relationship off as very close and it is on this false premise that he contacts Gruley for help when he receives a number of increasingly frightening letters.

Mellory believes he is being blackmailed but the method is sinister, undermining Mellory’s sense that he is in control of his life.

“Do you believe in fate?….If someone told you to think of a number, I know what number you’d think of.  You don’t believe me?  I’ll prove it to you.  Think of any number up to a thousand – the first number that comes to your mind.  Picture it.  Now see how well I know your secrets.  Open the little envelope.” (page 21).

Mellory plays the game.  The first number he thinks of is 658. Then he opens the small envelope. “Does it shock you that I knew that you would pick 658?  Who knows you that well?” (page 22).  Mellory is instructed to send cash or personal check in the amount of $289.87 to a post office box in Connecticut.  The check is to be made out to X. Arybdis.

Mellory complies but the messages continue and he is certain it is someone who knew him in the past, someone who knows he did something terrible.  Mellory is a self-help guru, the author of successful books and the retreat master for groups who gather at the estate that is his base.  But Mellory has a past upon which he based his career.  He was a drinker, a drinker who was plunged into blackouts; he remembers nothing of what he might have done during those periods.  Did he kill someone?  Is he a murderer?

And then Mellory is murdered.  The manner of death is clear; the method of death, like everything else at the end of Mellory’s life, is complicated.  Gruley is fully involved now that he is in the middle, again, of a search for a serial killer.

THINK OF A NUMB3R  is the first book written by John Verdon.  With one hiccup, the first 2/3′s of the book are different and engaging.  The last section is very much like other serial killer fiction.  This is not to say that they book isn’t enjoyable; it really is a page turner.  Dave Gruley is a welcome addition to the mystery genre.

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