Shut Your Eyes Tight
- John Vernon
- 528 pp.
- September 16, 2011
In the bucolic Catskills, a decapitated bride brings detective Dave Gurney out of retirement and back into the game.
Reviewed by Marcia Boyles
Have you ever had a friend who talked too much? Someone of whom you were fond, but on occasion, longed to insist: “Be quiet, please!” If so, you’ll understand how I felt while reading John Verdon’s second novel, Shut Your Eyes Tight. The protagonist, the recently retired “brilliant” detective Dave Gurney, carries on conversations (with others, but mostly with himself) that sometimes are interesting, sometimes redundant, sometimes intelligent, but nearly always, seemingly endless.
Dave, an ex-city cop, recently moved with his wife, Madeleine, to a bucolic farm in the Catskills. Although his wife is now in her element, Dave is periodically restless and unfulfilled. When the mother of a bride who was brutally decapitated at her wedding pressures Dave to work on solving the case as a well-paid consultant, Dave is tempted and finally agrees. Dave’s wife, Madeleine, is not pleased he’s returning to activities similar to those of his old profession. The investigation, handled badly by incompetent cops, has been stalled for months. Dave, with insider help from Jack Hardwick, a smart if roguish acquaintance on the force, sets out to investigate on his own, periodically coordinating his efforts with the markedly inferior ones of police and prosecutor.
The murdered bride, Jillian, is revealed to have been a troubled young woman. The bridegroom, Dr. Scott Ashton, is a brilliant psychotherapist who runs an exclusive private school for female sex-abuse victims. Every one of the school’s students, including Jillian, has evolved from victim into a predatory sexual abuser of young children.
The mystery of the decapitated bride appears simple, at first. A Mexican laborer, Hector Flores, who under Dr. Ashton’s tutelage has metamorphosed into his invaluable personal assistant, lives on Ashton’s estate. During the videotaped wedding festivities on Ashton’s grounds, Jillian is seen to enter Flores’ tiny cottage to urge him to join the celebration. When she does not return, Ashton sends a caterer to fetch her, to no avail. Ashton finally enters the cottage himself, exits immediately and collapses. When others rush in, they discover the decapitated bride, sitting in her blood-drenched wedding dress, her head neatly placed on the table in front of her. Hector Flores has escaped out a back window into the woods where tracking dogs lead to a bloody machete but a cold trail. After several months, Flores is still on the loose, his location unknown.
While Dave investigates, three significant events occur. First, a number of recent graduates of Dr. Ashton’s exclusive school are discovered to be missing under nearly identical circumstances, including being photographed in provocative poses by an upscale advertising agency. Then, Dave, who produced a series of enhanced photos of serial killers that hang in an expensive art gallery, is persuaded to meet with a potential buyer in the man’s NYC apartment. While there, Dave is drugged, and presumably videotaped doing unspeakable things, about which he has no memory. Lastly, further decapitations of women occur, including a neighbor of Ashton’s, a school staff member and a former student who is found stuffed into the freezer of a notorious wealthy Floridian. Like the legendary headless horseman galloping in the night, these latter unfortunates make brief but memorable and significant (to solving the mystery) appearances. The conclusion, when it finally arrives, contains both jarringly unexpected and (unfortunately), expected elements, including the identity of the murderous, decapitating villain and a feel-good ending.
The good news about this book: Its primary characters, including Dave Gurney, Madeleine and Jack Hardwick, are well drawn and likable; its plot is truly unique and mostly interesting. The book would have been strengthened by adequately demonstrating Gurney’s brilliance rather than simply quoting media articles and other individuals who label him thus. For example, Gurney’s lesson to police academy students about undercover roles ― that those you need to fool will believe what they discover about you more than what you tell them ― does not seem to me to prove purported brilliance.
The main weakness, however, is that the author provides us with 528 pages of a book that should have been tightened and edited to half that number, tops.
Marcia Boyles is a retired academic administrator who teaches memoir-writing classes. She recently completed a mystery co-authored by a group of fellow retirees, The Memoir Class.