Book Review

'Peter Pan Must Die': intricate plot, plastic protagonists

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David Gurney, a retired NYPD detective, returns in this fourth in a series crime puzzler. The series began with “Think of a Number,” which I will disclose now I started to read but did not care to finish.

By John Verdon
Crown ($25)

While I typically prefer to approach a book review with full background information, I did not return to previous books in the series prior to reading “Peter Pan Must Die”  because, to steal a phrase from an old Dorothy Parker book review in The New Yorker, I have my health to think of.

Reading the whole series might have generated a backlog of good will for the host of annoying and sometimes downright unlikable characters who populate Mr. Verdon’s books.

Our hero has retired too young to a small farm in upstate New York with his wife Madeline. Why? I can’t say, although details revealed in the last quarter of the book possibly explain his reasons.

Apparently Dave Gurney was the smartest, baddest case breaker in all the NYPD, and he likes nothing better in his retirement than to be brought in to consult on the toughest investigations.

He uses his superior intellect to battle arch-criminals of almost equally superior cunning. He outthinks them by descending into a cerebral funk that allows him to be annoyed by anyone and anything that interrupts the flow of his great thoughts. He is Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes without the passion or wit.

He forgets everything his wife tells him, with the result that she has to continuously remind him of social engagements, her work schedule, ongoing house projects, and all the mundane daily details that lesser beings have no trouble integrating into their lives.

His latest head scratcher is brought to him by his confederate on previous cases, former New York State Police investigator Jack Hardwick, who was drummed off the force due to his collaboration with Gurney.

To settle his debt, Gurney agrees to help Jack, now a private detective, spring his client, a high profile convicted murderess from prison.

Hardwick’s client was convicted of killing her husband, a famous and wealthy man entering politics. Hardwick only wants Dave’s help to secure a ruling for a mistrial based on botched or criminal police work. However, Gurney is a seeker of truth, and will work on the case only to prove the client’s innocence, which early on, he begins to believe in.

I have no quarrel with the tightly woven plot, although foreshadowing devices, like the endless discussions regarding the Gurneys’ new chicken coop and the upcoming local fair, are dropped like a ton of bricks.

The investigative work that leads to the discovery of the killer is interesting, and if a more engaging cast of characters had performed it, it would have made “Peter Pan Must Die” an above-average detective story.

But these people are irritating and unpleasant to be around. And I mean the good guys. I don’t expect to be simpatico with criminals, although they can be interesting company in fiction.

Dave Gurney is aloof and disengaged from his wife and their country life, which it is assumed he chose willingly enough. He is called to task for this late in the book, told by a psychiatrist that he is “ignoring everything that matters.”

A smart guy like him with keen insights into human behavior and a psychologist for a wife should have figured that out three books ago. Detectives in mystery novels are often broken people, but this should make them more interesting, not less.

His sidekick, Jack Hardwick, is foulmouthed and irreverent, eager to offend. This describes some of my favorite people in fiction and in life, when tempered with intelligence and humor.

But this guy supposedly has mad detective skills of which not even a glimmer is seen. Every time Hardwick appears on the page, the story grinds to a halt in order to display his dopey opinions and his shortcut-taking philosophy.

If an intricate plot and the methodical unraveling of a crime riddle are all that matters, “Peter Pan Must Die” may fit the bill. But if you are looking for compelling protagonists, I say, move along folks, nothing to see here.

Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (

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