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'Peter Pan Must Die' by John Verdon: Twisted and ingenious murder mystery

Twisted and brilliant thriller
courtesy of Crown Publishers

Peter Pan Must Die by John Verdon

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"Peter Pan Must Die" is the fourth entry in author John Verdon's Dave Gurney novels. The first three were apparently international best-sellers, and this one will likely prove no exception to that stellar streak.

Verdon demonstrates remarkable skill here in weaving a fascinating and puzzling murder/suspense web. He presents us with a terrific variety of potential murderers and/or murder planners, and all the suspects are, to varying degrees, rather disgusting characters with ample motive to kill the first victim, who is/was as entirely unlikable as the suspects themselves.

That victim, one Carl Spalter, is murdered in strange and eerie circumstances. His mother, who had lived in a senior citizen's home, has just died. So the disgusting Spalter and all his disgusting family attend the funeral, where Spalter is killed with one shot as he moves to the podium to speak about his deceased mother.

The attendees include his messed-up druggie daughter, who may inherit his immense fortune, and his televangelist-like brother, who is one of those too-good-to-be-true kinds of slimy guys. He has had a hate-hate relationship with his brother for both of their entire lives.

Meanwhile, lurking nearby is the actual shooter, who must be a superb marksperson to accomplish the amazing kill shot. Also nearby is Spalter's soon-to-be-divorced wife, who, not so incidentally, has been taking shooting lessons. She has also been convicted of the murder -- apparently wrongfully convicted.

And who wouldn't want to be rid of Spalter? He was a greedy, super-ambitious, mafia-connected hypocrite who was preparing to run for governor on an anti-organized crime platform. It's an electrically entertaining cast of eccentric ugly characters, all drawn superbly by Verdon.

But the protagonist, Dave Gurney, and those close to him are also fascinating characters. Gurney is the nearly prototypical tortured semi-genius ex-cop detective. He's surpassingly brilliant, sort of a cross between the logician Einstein, the philosopher Confucius, the master detective Sherlock Holmes, and the courageous Lone Ranger. One of the characters points out that most detectives want to figure out the puzzle in order to solve the crime; Gurney wants to solve the crime in order to figure out the puzzle. And Gurney's Tonto, partner-in-crime-solving extraordinaire, is one Jack Hardwick, who is obscene, grouchy, vulgar, and an altogether wonderful character.

There is an abundance here of descriptive detail covering both the scenery and the characters -- perhaps even an over-abundance. And there's a great deal of semi-believable coincidence involving both the murder itself and the solution to the mystery. But the building of suspense, the multi-character development, the beautiful logic of the solution, the effective dialogue, and the colossally explosive conclusion all overcome these minor flaws.

And there are even two over-arching, organically emergent themes: 1. "There's nothing in life that matters but love;" and 2. Be careful about assumptions; they may seem to be based on objective observation and evaluation of facts, but they are often even more dependent on the pre-conceived notions we bring to them.

And those truths are as wise as the protagonist himself.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Crown Publishers, for review purposes.

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