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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Wolf Lake by John Verdon

Counterpoint, 375 pages, $25

I’ve been a fan of the Dave Gurney series from the get-go. Author John Verdon mixes standard detective work with wonky serial killer and borderline woo-woo stuff. Gurney has brains and good instinct (and apparently looks like Daniel Craig). “Think of a Number,” the first book in the Gurney series, was a great combination of puzzle, thrills, chills, and eerie characters. But Verdon has not sacrificed Gurney’s personal life story. Gurney’s wife, Madeleine, his upstate New York farm, his search for a peaceful life after the turmoil of big city police work are richly played as a backdrop to Gurney’s current case.

Gurney’s current case this time around is a semi-locked room mystery. At one point in the story, a howling, bodacious winter storm has trapped several people in an isolated resort area in upstate New York. Gurney and his wife become two of the trappees when Gurney agrees to investigate whether a hypnotist, who is a resident of the resort, has hypnotized several men into committing suicide, against their will. (As we know from reading other mystery books, it’s accepted fare that no one can do anything against his or her nature while hypnotized.)

Of course, it’s a tangled skein that prompts Gurney and his co-investigator Jack Hardwich to sink deeper into the stories of the dead men and deeper into the snows of the Wolf Lake resort grounds. In true “The Shining” fashion, everyone seems a little off-kilter, especially the wild-haired and wild-eyed resort handyman, Barlow Tarr, who erupts every so often with warnings of evil and gyring hawks. (And a hatchet makes an appearance. If Daniel Craig is Gurney, then Jack Nicholson is Tarr.)

Before the storm traps our hero and his wife, Gurney and Hardwich cast their inquiries out to sources developed over the years as legitimate lawmen, one of whom is with the CIA, albeit a comically secretive and code-happy one. In fact, high tech toys become a part of the mystery. What’s a seemingly low tech case doing with high tech equipment? Verdon rubs the two together in unexpected ways and springs forth with a surprising answer. (I never in a million, zillion years would have cracked this case.)

They also meet with people who knew the dead men. My favorite was a child-like woman who met Gurney in a doll shop. She was the girlfriend of one of the dead men, and her ethereal, air-headed comments and actions were priceless. If it had gone on much longer, it would have been of the Joan-Crawford-campy variety.

As a poignant counterpoint, Madeleine, too, has a story involving Wolf Lake. It takes a while to draw the story out of her, but in her youth, Madeleine had a connection to the area. There was a tragic death then, which Madeleine thought she had put to rest through therapy but which she clearly hasn’t. It, too, adds to the tension of the story.

Despite the a few vague “hanging chads” left at the end of the book, the resolution was immensely satisfying.

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