Book Review: On Harrow Hill by John Verdon

On Harrow Hill by John Verdon is the seventh book in the Dave Gurney series, where an old colleague comes to the retired NYPD detective for help solving the mysterious death of his town’s most prominent resident, and Gurney must use all of his analytical skills to hunt a murderer who just might be killing from beyond the grave.

It’s been a long time since I’ve well and truly exercised my little gray cells, so it was thrilling to encounter the knotty intellectual problems at the heart of John Verdon’s latest Dave Gurney mystery, On Harrow Hill. Gurney is enjoying his retirement from the NYPD, spending time with his wife, Madeleine, at their farmhouse and giving lectures at the state police training academy. He’s also, somewhat famously, recently consulted on several particularly difficult cases.

So it’s not really a surprise when one of his ex-partners, Mike Morgan, calls asking for help. Morgan retired from the NYPD under a cloud but failed upward and is now police chief in the seemingly idyllic country town of Larchfield, ruled with an iron hand by aging tycoon Angus Russell. Trouble is someone has just assassinated the king, and all signs point to the killer being a man who’s already dead. When the police go to check on the dead body, they find that the coffin has been busted open from the inside—and the corpse is long gone.

A wave of murders accompanied by creepy signs and messages soon has all of Larchfield in an uproar. Sensationalist muckrakers, self-proclaimed zombie hunters, and an apocalyptic preacher railing against Satanism descend on the small town. Hilda Russell, sister of the deceased Angus and an Episcopalian preacher herself, has a lot of opinions on this last, which she’s more than happy to share with Gurney.

“Silas Gant is a virus in the heart of Christianity. A walking, talking malignancy. He promotes racism, hatred, guns, and violence as though they were life’s cardinal virtues. His so-called ministry is an ugly joke.”

 

“What’s in it for him?”

 

“Money, publicity, the thrill of stirring up an angry mob. And—if he can grow that mob big enough—a political career. He wouldn’t be the first petty demagogue to rise to the heights of power on a wave of ignorant fury.”

 

“You think that’s his goal?”

 

“Everything he does is consistent with building a certain sort of following—resentful fundamentalists who see evil in their enemies, virtue in themselves, and the Bible as a blunt instrument for breaking heads.[“]

Gurney soon finds himself trying not only to solve the murders but also to quell the violence and hysteria threatening to engulf Larchfield. But how do you stop a dead man who’s proclaimed himself a dark angel risen from death from killing and killing again?

This was a truly ingenious play-fair mystery novel that’s police procedural adjacent while still being able to bend the rules of the latter by featuring an unconventional sleuth and his unconventional friends—Jack Hardwick especially is a hoot! Gurney is thoughtful and methodical, examining problems from every angle to discern their rational causes but never ignoring his gut when it tells him to keep investigating or his heart when it tells him to take a moment to think about what truly matters.

He gazed at the surprisingly small indentation [the victim’s] body had made—as though she were a child. “Mary Kane,” he said softly.

 

Barstow gave him a quizzical look.

 

“It’s a habit I have. Saying the name aloud. It moves my focus from the corpse to the person who was once alive—where it belongs—the person whose life was stolen from them.”

 

“Sounds painful.”

 

“It should be painful. Otherwise, this is nothing but a game.”

 

Hearing himself, he was taken aback by his sententious tone. Hadn’t his own investigations been powered more by intellectual challenge than by empathy for the victim? Hadn’t he often found the “game” intriguing, motivating, all-consuming?

These equal doses, almost even a tension, of heart and mind make for a wonderfully sympathetic detective who is himself often deeply empathetic to the people he meets in the course of his investigations. This helps him not only serve as a champion for the dead and the victimized but also better understand the criminal adversaries arrayed against him. Mr. Verdon’s novel is filled with this sort of exquisite balance, sucking the reader in and ratcheting up the surprises to the point where I protested aloud in emotional distress at a certain poncho-clad plot twist.

If you’re looking for a thrilling mystery with a smart, sympathetic detective that will puzzle you every step of the way, you need to pick up On Harrow Hill. I know exactly where to turn from now on when I need a challenging mystery read: to Mr. Verdon’s wildly entertaining and topical, intellectual and affecting Dave Gurney novels.

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