It’s A Mystery: “He’s Satan in the skin of Everyman.”
By John Verdon
July seems to me the perfect month to pick a front-runner from the perennial mother lode of psychological thrillers. I am not referring to the flock of so-called “beach reads” that appear every summer, since they are by definition very lightweight. I am referring to a novel with high voltage suspense coupled with elegant, literate writing and a puzzle you won’t solve until the very last page. Trust me, I read a great many thrillers and I didn’t come close to guessing the real villain in this one until almost the end. I am talking about John Verdon’s Shut Your Eyes Tight.
To put this pick into perspective, I have to say that the champion decade for thrillers was in the last century: 1971-1978. There is Robert Ludlum’s debut novel before he became a cottage industry: The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971). I summed it up as, “Murder, madness and megalomania among the high and mighty.” That year also brought us Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. This novel, which tracks an assassination attempt on French president Charles de Gaulle, proves that a suspense story can more than succeed even when the ending is known. Jack Higgins, before he became sinfully prolific, penned the brilliant The Eagle Has Landed (1975). The premise, as above, has fiction trumping reality with German paratroopers kidnapping the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, but that takes nothing away from some heart-stopping suspense. Lastly, there is Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle (1978). Here, a German spy in possession of a secret that could win the war for Hitler is undone by a man in a wheelchair and his beautiful young wife. I know that description has the whiff of potboiler, but it is superior suspense fiction. In fact, what binds these four together is that they have, in the main, stood the test of time.
Whether this will be true for John Verdon I cannot say. For now, he is as good as it gets. His first novel, Think of a Number (2010) introduced Dave Gurney, just retired as NYPD’s top cop. He is forging a new life with his wife Madeleine, in upstate New York.
When an old school chum, Mark Mellery, seeks his advice, what begins as a diverting puzzle turns into a massive serial-murder investigation. The Mellery Case becomes Gurney’s cause célèbre. Verdon’s debut received deservedly rave reviews, calling him “masterly”, “entertaining” and “inventive” for starters.
In Shut Your Eyes Tight, the standout second in the series, a year has passed and Gurney is trying to make a go at retirement. No surprise, the role of country squire simply doesn’t agree with him. So when Jack Hardwick, from the Mellery case, comes back into his life with a new problem, he sits up and listens:
“Here’s what I got for you. Sensational murder committed four months ago. Spoiled little rich girl, Jillian Perry, marries hotshot celebrity psychiatrist, Scott Ashton, who’s appeared on Oprah, for Godsake. An hour later at the wedding reception on the psychiatrist’s fancy estate, his Mexican gardener, Hector Flores, decapitates her with a machete and escapes…disappears off the face of the earth, along with the neighbor’s wife…. I’m handing you the case of a lifetime.”
Jack Hardwick was a nasty, abrasive, watery-eyed cynic…but Gurney also considered him one of the smartest, most insightful detectives he’d ever worked with…. Ten years earlier, working a hundred miles apart, they had discovered separate halves of the victim’s severed body. That sort of serendipity in detection can forge a strong, if bizarre, bond.
“Debutante bride got whacked at her own wedding…how could an ace homicide detective not be interested?… This case is complex…. It’s got layers to it, Davey. It’s a fucking onion.”
“You’re a natural-born onion peeler—the best there ever was.”
Turns out “The Case of the Headless Bride” may be cold to the cops, but, Val, the bride’s mother, is not going to leave it alone. She’s the ace Hardwick has up his sleeve:
Of course Gurney agrees to meet with her. She turns out to be drop dead gorgeous, very persuasive, hands him a blank check to locate Flores. Think of it as “The Case of the Velvet Claws.” Val Perry also gives him an earful about her daughter “the sociopath” that tells him more than he might want to know about her maternal instincts. It seems that between the ages of three and seven, Jillian was abused repeatedly by Val’s crack-addict friends. At thirteen, by the time she winds up at Scott Ashton’s facility for wealthy, wayward psychotic girls, Mapleshade, she’s an experienced sexual predator, an abuser of other children. And guilt-ridden mommy is now married to one of the richest neurosurgeons in the world. At seventeen, Jillian is gone from Mapleshade, but doesn’t hook up personally with Scott Ashton, who, by the by, was never her psychiatrist, for another year and a half. And how did mommy dearest and step daddy feel about the union? Relieved!
“She came to me last week—four months to the day after the murder, wondering if I could get back on the case. I told her my hands were tied…however, I did happen to have access to the most highly decorated detective in the history of the NYPD… I just happened to have a copy of that adoring little piece that New York magazine did on you after you cracked the Satanic Santa case. What was it they called you—Supercop? She was impressed.”
As for Ashton, when Gurney finally gets a one on one, he tells him that Jillian was brilliant beyond the normal scope of the term. Her mind was more formidable than his. Rather than crushing his ego, Gurney finds it interesting that Ashton found that a complete turn on. He also confides that she made the transition from victim to abuser when she was five. Apparently five-year-old abusers of even younger children are not as rare as Dave Gurney might have thought. But Ashton positively lights up when recounting that while success rates in the field are debatable, “even one success can prevent the destruction of a hundred lives.” Who’s crazy?
The Flores trail is eerily cold and the murder weapon, found so conveniently near the scene of the crime, may not be the murder weapon. Worse, the body of a decapitated woman has been found in the home of a Florida billionaire, hardly Flores territory. The body is that of a former Mapleshade girl. The cornered billionaire starts connecting some pretty grisly dots. Mapleshade and Jillian keep entering the picture. With the reluctant cooperation of Ashton, who feels the institution’s privacy is being compromised. Gurney begins a search for all recent Mapleshade graduates. As he digs deeper, he feels menace at every turn. Nothing is as it seems. He enters a dangerous world of sadistic manipulation run by a Sardinia-based crime family that makes the Sicilian Mafia look like Father Knows Best. Evil is hiding in plain sight and Holmes had it right: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
In the end, you’ll do a series of double takes, as befits a classy thriller. Shut Your Eyes Tight is mind-blowing, unpredictable, and beautifully rendered.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.