Through the writings of Edgar Allen Poe — considered the father of modern detective fiction — to two-fisted Nick Carter, wily Sherlock Holmes and the feisty Nancy Drew, to the works of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner, for more than a century readers of all ages have enjoyed gumshoeing along with a favorite sleuth in pursuit of evildoers. The genre is so popular that real-world detectives often find themselves denying that they have supernatural powers of observation. Detective fiction retains its appeal on many levels: it is action and adventure in a struggle between good and evil, but usually with enough grey space for moral ambiguity. It is science (both physical and social) up against the forces of chaos and destruction. The best of the works will even have room for good development of plot and character, humor and personal foibles.
There’s also a clear tension between between the curiosity of the private or amateur detective and the perspective of the professional police investigator. This is surely the case with Dave Gurney. He sometimes flashes a badge but it says New York Police Department — Retired. A native of The Bronx and a graduate of Fordham University, the fictional Gurney was the NYPD’s top detective — a hero to millions for cracking several cases of serial murder. He and his wife moved Upstate to the beautiful, bracing countryside of Delaware County where Dave would have as much use for unsolved crime cases as he would for an elevated train rattling between Sturges Corner and Bovina. But trouble and the demands of justice seem to follow him.
Dave Gurney is the creation of John Verdon. A native of The Bronx and a graduate of Fordham University, John was an executive in the New York advertising field. He and his wife now live Upstate in the beautiful, bracing countryside of Delaware County, which has become a setting for the Dave Gurney mysteries, along with much of the Southern Tier and Central New York. This geographical connection has not stopped his books from becoming international best-sellers.
The premiere volume in the series was “Think of a Number” in 2010. We meet Dave while he is pursuing his retirement activity, painting portraits taken from mug shots of convicted murderers. To his amazement, the paintings draw both morbid interest and the support of serious art collectors. He’s a little bored with life, but doesn’t jump at an opportunity to return to criminal investigation when Mark Mellery –an acquaintance from his college days — turns up with a plea to learn who has been threatening him. The threats lead to a series of murders and Gurney’s skillful and nearly fatal involvement.
One year later the second Dave Gurney mystery appeared, “Shut Your Eyes Tight”. The brutal decapitation of a bride on her wedding day has stumped police investigators and Gurney’s skill in finding clues and connections draws the reader along. Critics have noted approvingly that Verdon has brought back an earlier popular form, the “fair play” whodunit, wherein readers can follow the action along with the protagonist and apply their own powers of deduction.
The newest of John Verdon’s mystery novels is “Let the Devil Sleep” and, once again, Gurney has been almost forced to take an interest in another cold case of serial murder; he is called upon to uncover the identity of a killer who calls himself the Good Shepherd. Despite the factthat Gurney is still recovering from being shot at the climax of “Shut Your Eyes Tight” he agrees to help out a young woman — the daughter of the New York Magazine reporter whose story about Gurney turned him into “supercop” — whose college project to interview survivors of the Good Shepherd murders is being turned into a TV series by a sensationalistic network. What began as a favor to protect a woman from an unabalanced ex-boyfriend turns into an extensive and dangerous case as Gurney overturns nearly all the findings and assumptions of the once-closed investigation of the Good Shepherd.
He realized he’d been in too much of a rush the first time. He needed to slow down. He’d discovered over the years that one of the most destructive errors a detective can make is to leap to a possible pattern with too little data. Because once you think you see a pattern, there’s an inclination to dismiss data that doesn’t fit into it. The brain’s natural affinity for pattern formation devalues dots that don’t contribute to the picture. Add to that a detective’s professional need to grasp the outline of a situation quickly, and the result is a tendency to jump to premature conclusions.
Providing balance and support in Gurney’s life, and a degree of lyricism to the novels, is Dave’s wife Madeleine. Dave realizes that he is better at analyzing a crime scene than expressing his feelings, while Madeleine can sense his thoughts, understands his needs and accepts that he may be placed in danger. She appreciates the beauty of their environment and many of her scenes seem to take place in the kitchen with hot mugs of coffee or herbal tea and healthy food. By the conclusion of “Let the Devil Sleep” a wounded Dave Gurney “knew how isolated he could become and hardly notice that it was happening. How relationships could slip away like smoke in the breeze.” He has gained a new sense of life, which could be carried (at great risk) into the fourth novel in John Verdon’s series.