Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hitting 300: Let the Devil Sleep

When I write my reviews on Goodreads, I like to keep them short and sweet, because those are the reviews I like to read. I don't like a ton of details. I tend to skip right over any that are more than a paragraph long. When I'm browsing GR, I'm just looking for general impressions. Other people have their own opinions on what makes a good or a bad review, and there are probably many who think mine aren't very helpful at all. But, I write the types of reviews that I like to read, figuring that there are bound to be others out there who appreciate the simple and direct approach

Today, though, I thought I'd try my hand at a more "typical" book review. I picked a pretty good one for my 300th book, and I thought both the book and the occasion deserved a little fanfare.

Let the Devil Sleep, by John Verdon
#3 in the Dave Gurney series
Crown Publishers, July 2012
449 pages
ISBN: 9780307717924

The most decorated homicide detective in NYPD history, Dave Gurney is still trying to adjust to his life of quasi-retirement in upstate New York when a young woman who is producing a documentary on a notorious murder spree seeks his counsel. Soon after, Gurney begins feeling threatened: a razor-sharp hunting arrow lands in his yard, and he narrowly escapes serious injury in a booby-trapped basement. As things grow more bizarre, he finds himself reexamining the case of The Good Shepherd, which ten years before involved a series of roadside shootings and a rage-against-the-rich manifesto. The killings ceased, and a cult of analysis grew up around the case with a consensus opinion that no one would dream of challenging -- no one, that is, but Dave Gurney.

I stumbled across John Verdon's debut, Think of a Number, back in February, and immediately followed it up with his second book, Shut Your Eyes Tight. Since then, I've been eagerly awaiting the third in the series . . . impatiently, even, since the library took an unusually long time in getting this book ordered and processed. Finally, over a month after it was released, I was able to get my hands on it.

Dave Gurney is a great protagonist, both for his strengths and weaknesses, and the books are as much about his own personal struggles as they are about solving the mystery. In previous books, Gurney is trying to balance the cases he is working with his personal life, his relationship with his wife in particular. In this one, most of the conflict comes from within. Gurney is wrestling with some personal demons at the beginning of the book, and he continues to fight them throughout his efforts to solve the ten-year old cold case.

The case itself, and the way it's presented, is what I've come to expect from this series. The twist here is that it's an old case, one that's been accepted for years as a textbook example of a serial killer. But, as usual, Gurney sees things from a slightly different angle than the others involved, which makes for a compelling read, rife with conflict. Unfortunately, I found the conclusion a little disappointing; it didn't have quite the same "wow" factor that the others did, and there were a few details that weren't really resolved to my satisfaction. It's a shame, because the first 90% of the book was really great, and had me thinking this might be his best novel yet.

Part of what makes these books so enjoyable to me is Verdon's writing style. He puts more into it than just telling the story. I'd say the prose even borders on literary, without seeming overdone. For example, the opening of the first chapter:

The French doors were open.

From where Dave Gurney was standing by the breakfast table, he could see that the last patches of winter snow, like reluctant glaciers, had receded from the open pasture and survived now only in the more recessed and shadowed places in the surrounding woods.

The mixed fragrances of the newly exposed earth and the previous summer's unmowed hay drifted into the big farmhouse kitchen. These were smells that once had the power to enthrall him. Now they barely touched him.

And the closing sentences of that chapter:

As if acting in malignant harmony, a dark cloud slowly obliterated the sun. Spring, it seemed, had come and gone.

I really like how Verdon gives us the setting and a first look at his main character, and sets up the whole tone of the story. I don't read much literary fiction because I like something a little more exciting than what most of it has to offer. I appreciate the talent, but it doesn't entertain me. Which is why it's so great when an author of the "exciting" genre fiction I typically read actually does put effort into the craft, and goes beyond just moving the plot from A to B to C.

Which, I guess, is what makes me so accepting of the fact that "C" wasn't all that I'd hoped for. The destination wasn't perfect, but I still enjoyed the journey.

John Verdon has become one of those authors who I know will make me lose myself in his books. I highly recommend them, starting with Think of a Number, which remains my favorite of the three.


Read the rest of my "Hitting 300" blog series:
Part 1: A Look Back
Part 2: Let the Devil Sleep
Part 3: They Can't All Be Winners
Part 4: Saving the Best for Last

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