Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Think of a Number: John Verdon

I think I should probably stop buying books simply because they've got a good review in the Guardian's thriller section, because it's leading me astray. I bought this book on impulse because I was in a bookshop and it had been well reviewed and if I'm honest because Waterstone's has programmed me so thoroughly to buy books in threes that I even seem to do it when I'm buying books in other shops. Alan Campbell's God of Clocks was there, and I wanted to read Stuart Neville's The Twelve, and this made three.

Anyhow, Think of a Number is not very good. Verdon isn't a a natural writer, and seems to think that it's necessary to explain his character's mental state all the time. It's not, and even when it is, when you've chosen to see the entire book from a single viewpoint the question of mental state is handled better by using the right words. Think of a Number is very mechanical in how it sets people up. I give credit where credit is due; Verdon was clearly trying to write something solid and character driven, it's just that it doesn't work. Oh well.

The set up is one of those ingenious things which only happens in fiction; a serial killer who's taunting his victims, apparently by knowing their every thought. The plot hangs together so well that as I think back over it now, it comes to me that this is that odd beast, a book which has had its master plot worked out in advance in some detail, and then had the narrative and character tics worked into the master plot to fill in the spaces. The character plot for the viewpoint character is that he's unable to get away from his obsession with police work and as a result almost loses his marriage. This is a pretty good idea, but it doesn't work out. Verdon obsessionally documents the myriad little irritations and unspoken arguments of a marriage running into trouble, but rather than letting the reader work out the meaning of the needles and the silences, he insists on explaining each of them. I think that this was deliberate; that it's part of the characterisation to document everything analytically, but it doesn't quite work. More to the point, the idea's a good one because everyone reading a thriller knows that the killer can't kill the viewpoint characters and that therefore there has to be something else at hazard to get the reader invested. The risk of a marriage falling apart is a good relateable hazard that could go either way without ruining the master plot, which is all good for the tension, but somehow I never managed to care what happened to the marriage.

Like all modern tricksy thrillers, it's all about the reversals and giving away the secret behind the inexplicable. The opening set-up is genuinely clever and a little surprising in the way it works out, but I was way ahead of the characters when it came to everything else. There's an old spoilery rule of thumb in TV and movie genre fiction that anyone who gets more than a couple of lines of dialogue will turn out to be important even if they initially appear to be scenery. TV and movies can't afford to hire actors and do setups unless they're doing work towards the punch line. Something of that vibe started to creep up on me during the final act of the book, and the identity of the killer became apparent to me long before it was revealed.

But I have learned something useful; read the jacket reviews. If the book is being praised to the skies by writers you already know of and don't bother reading, leave it in the shop.

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