Book Review: LET THE DEVIL SLEEP by John Verdon

David Gurney is a much celebrated, and reluctantly-retired, NYPD detective recovering from gunshot injuries he sustained during his last case. A journalist who once made him something of a household name calls to ask for a favor; her daughter is putting together a documentary called Orphans of Murder and would like some consulting advice to keep things authentic. Oh, and she might also want him to look into the small matter of the daughter’s unhinged ex who may or may not be breaking into her apartment as “pranks.”

The focus of daughter Kim’s documentary is not just about the families of murder victims, but specifically the families of The Good Shepherd’s murder victims. Except, the RAM News network has a differing view on how her show should look, not all of the families are cooperative, and oh yeah, The Good Shepherd does not want the show on the air and is willing to do what it takes to keep it from being seen.

Gurney is a likeable enough guy. He isn’t so thrilled with how slowly he’s been recovering. He hates that he feels out of the loop and isolated. The put out to pasture metaphor seems even stronger given all the open land surrounding his Walnut Crossing home. At first he’s annoyed with Kim’s requests, but then he starts to enjoy the puzzle.

RAM is a stand-in for every cable outlet that claims to air news while perpetuating violence and strife as entertainment in exchange for ratings. None of the characters, except the RAM executive – who perpetually made me picture Joe Pesci despite differences in appearance – who prides himself and his network on boosting ratings and building something unique and powerful, seem to like RAM very much yet almost all admit to having watched it.

Sterne smiled patiently. “Very eloquent, Kim. However, my concerns haven’t gone away. I’ll borrow your numbering technique to make my own points. Number one, RAM is not a nice organization. They’re at the cutting edge of everything that’s wrong with the media today. They’ve become a megaphone for the ugliest and most divisive sentiments in society. They glorify aggressiveness and make a virtue of ignorance. Your priority may be to convey the truth, but that’s not their priority. Number two, they have more experience in manipulating people like you than you have in managing people like them. There’s no realistic chance of your maintaining control over your series. I know you’re asking participants to sign exclusivity agreements with you, but don’t be surprised if RAM finds some way around that. Number three, even if RAM didn’t have a poisonous agenda, I’d still advise you to abort your project. You have an interesting premise, but you have the potential for generating great pain. The price of your project outweighs its rewards. You have good intentions, but good intentions can create suffering – especially when you publicize private feelings. Number four, my personal experience still remains, after all these years, vivid proof of everything I’m saying. I’ve alluded to this before, Kim, but perhaps I should be more specific. Nineteen years ago, when I was in dental school, a close friend at another university was killed. I remember the media coverage as hysterical, shallow, cheap, and utterly disgusting. And utterly typical. The sad fact is that the underlying imperatives of the media business favor the production of trash. The market for trash is larger than the market for sensitive, intelligent comment. That’s simply the nature of business, the nature of the audience. Media Economics 101.”

The ideas of media and spin play large across the whole case. After the initial six murders, a “manifesto” was sent to media outlets and eventually became the core of the FBI’s profile and subsequent investigation. Gurney isn’t increasingly gets under the skin of the primary agent with his suggestions that the original case was about something other than what the manifesto claimed.

And if big media isn’t creepy enough, a mysterious entity is leaving subtle hints at just how vulnerable Kim and Gurney are, even in the safety of their own homes. Moved knives, little drops of cattle blood, unscrewed light bulbs, and arrows that grow out of flowerbeds…little things meant to steadily unnerve and steer Kim, especially, off the project.

Gurney is great as a guy adjusting to a life uncertain and Kim is equally well done. It would have been easy for her to come across as a wimp or the kind of old-school damsel in distress, what with all the creepy stuff centered around her apartment, but she realistically holds her own.

Let the Devil Sleep is the third David Gurney book, but it’s capable of standing on its own. Readers might want to go back and read about older cases alluded to, but the details are unnecessary for enjoying this one. Both thriller, in that there are potential future murders that need to be stopped, and mystery because of the unsolved Good Shepherd case, it’s well worth turning off the nightly news to read it. Besides, let that devil sleep.

Pros: RAM is every bit as creepy as the killer and the book skewers the way “media” has overtaken journalism. Kim and Gurney are believable and their relationship is appropriately complex.

Cons: Seemed a little slow to start (but that could have been me). The climax felt a little over-the-top for a bunch of old guys, but it was also great fun so maybe that’s not really a con.

Bottom line: It’s a fun read with just enough of a contemporary theme to make your airport/beach read seem smart.