James Renner

Journalist. Palindrome. Writer.

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Read These… Horns/NOS4A2

So I got on a little Joe Hill kick this Halloween. Seemed appropriate. I read Heart Shaped Box and really liked it. And found Horns at an estate sale. Then my wife read it in like a day and made me. And NOS4A2. What a cool title, right?

First of all, Hill is thankfully not a “Stephen King-light.” Like his father, Hill loves putting ordinary people into extraordinary situations, and you can tell he’s studied his old man’s writing enough to pick up some of his tricks (calls-backs, magic words, etc.). But Hill’s background as a successful comic book writer informs his novels and gives them a different voice. A funner voice. Earnest, but self-aware.

Horns is about a young man who wakes up with devil horns and the ability to compel people to admit their deepest, darkest secret. It’s a mystery. The guy’s girlfriend is dead and he’s the main suspect and now the horns give him some leverage in the investigation. It’s also a surprisingly touching (and honest) love story. A novel as sweet as it is depraved. I’m still thinking about two scenes in particular. One involves a tree house that may or may not exist and an alien figurine sitting inside.

Just published is NOS4A2, about a vampire of sorts that lives off the souls of the kids he abducts and hides away in Christmasland. It was a fun ride (pun intended) and had the tone of an ambitious graphic novel. This one is very King in concept (with references to Pennywise and others) but its execution is more organized. There was probably an outline. King is jazz. Hill seems to need the sheet music for now. Which is not necessarily a critique.

I dug both these adventures. But there was one thing that bugged me a bit. Both novels propelled to a climax that wasn’t really a climax, one act too soon, which gave that last part the feeling of a really long epilogue. I suspect he’s experimenting with pacing and reader expectation. Interested to see how that develops.

Read This… Inferno, by Dan Brown

I loves me some Dan Brown. I do. Not because he’s a great writer. He isn’t. But because he is a great storyteller. When I get together with my writer friends (picture us playing poker like on Castle or something) we snicker and chide Brown because he’s a bit of a hack, the kind of writer who never met an adverb he didn’t like. I don’t think he even really knows what being a “good” writer is all about. But, in the end, what the hell does that matter? He’s made more money than any writer ever.

I love reading Dan Brown not for the subtle prose, but for the structure. He’s perfected a structure for storytelling that manipulates the reader into thinking they literally cannot put the book down. He ends each chapter with a little cliff hanger and he’s always teaching you new things, always leaving a bit of the mystery in his back pocket. I study Dan Brown’s writing not to be a better novelist but to steal his structure for use in my nonfiction works. I try to learn from Dan Brown so that my true crime books are palatable for a reader who loves novels and has never read nonfiction before. It’s a wonderful structure for a real mystery.

I took Inferno on vacation with me last week. It was, literally, a beach read. And I think it’s probably his best work to date. It’s certainly a more literary novel than The DaVinci Code. With a bit of whimsy, Dan Brown takes all the tropes he invented with The DaVinci Code and Angles and Demons and turns them upside-down. In this story, Robert Langdon has lost his memory. He wakes up with no memory of the last 48 hours and must piece together his own history as he tries to solve the riddles of a man obsessed with Dante’s Inferno. Kind of like The Hangover. But more Florency.

But with Dan Brown, the mystery usually serves as a device to introduce the reader to a new idea that Brown thinks is really cool. Anti-matter. Jesus’s kids. Blah, blah, something to do with mind control. In Inferno, Brown teaches us about overpopulation. And what we learn is fucking scary. Like, depressing, why take the time to finish the book, scary. Seems we’re probably not going to survive the next 100 years because people are having too many babies. The Big Bad of Inferno is going to release a new virus to “cull” the population if Langdon doesn’t stop him in time.

Without spoiling the solution, Brown took a BIIIIIIIIG risk with the ending of this one. In hindsight, I think it’s possible this is a novel with no resolution, that rare story where nothing is actually accomplished, but you still feel satisfied somehow. The ending of Inferno changes the world in which Langdon exists. Permanently. I’m very curious to see if Brown has the cajones to address this new world in following Langdon adventures or if the repercussions of Inferno will be ignored the way the Kenny’s death gets ignored in each new episode of South Park.

I’m giving him an extra star for guts this time. Well done.

Read This: Joyland, by Stephen King

Ever since completing the Dark Tower saga, I get a sense that Uncle Steve is just having fun. His post-Tower books stand on their own the way his early books did. They are less referential, less meta, more earnest. It’s like watching a music legend walk into a corner pub and start twinkling the keys because, hell, he wants to.

Joyland is a simple tale well told. A young man, heartbroken for the first time, works at a beach-front amusement park during a summer in the 70’s and happens upon a mystery. And maybe a ghost. King’s last book for Hard Case Crime, The Colorado Kid, remains my favorite mystery novel of all time. But Joyland is probably the better story.

What’s fun is how King paints the feel of the park during a certain summer. I could hear the creak of the boards on the old Spin, the sound of the waves outside Devin’s bedroom window. And there’s the fascination with the world of the carny, complete with its secret language, which we are treated to. And the haunted house. And the psychic. And the murders…

This is a beach read set on a beach. Tailor made for now. Take it on vacation!

Read This… Travels, by Michael Crichton

I think I first saw the cover of this book when I was about 13 and the mystery of it grabbed me even then. It’s a hard to find book. Not as popular as Crichton’s works of fiction. But I happened upon a copy a few weeks ago and devoured it in two days.

Travels is the story of Crichton’s life from Harvard medical school to internationally acclaimed author of Sphere and Jurassic Park. But what makes it more than a jerk-off self-important autobiography is how Crichton talks openly and honestly about his search for truth and meaning in life. His adventures– and misadventures– span the entire world and beyond, venturing into the realm of metaphysics and transcendental meditation.

We travel with Crichton to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and witness the disintegration of his marriage. We venture into the jungles of Africa to visit the last wild gorillas with him. He takes us meditating in the California desert, and introduces us to a talking cactus. Crichton spent his life researching the edges of humanity, the fringes of what we are capable of. At times, what he finds is disappointing. But I was left with more of a sense of how we are all connected to each other, possibly on a quantum mechanics level, even.

Reader beware, this nonfiction book pushes the boundaries of believability at points, especially toward the end as Crichton begins to see auras and discovers he might be possessed by a few demons.

But it was a hell of a ride and everything I had hoped it could be. And I have a profound respect for the writer, now. Not just for his economy of words but for his gall to be so honest with his readers.

Crazy eBook deal on The Man from Primrose Lane

For the next few days, you can get The Man from Primrose Lane on your Kindle, Nook, or other eReader for only $3.99.

Here’s what some GoodReaders are saying about it:

“I totally adore books that keep me guessing, that keep revealing new things to me along the way, and which aren’t completely predictable. And a book that ends in such a way that makes me glance back at the beginning with a smile, and a promise to myself that I’m going to read it again?”

“…and so i was just reading along, doodley doodley doooo and then wait WHAT???”

“What an arresting, addictive little genre-tapdance, this novel. It’s a matroyshka doll of a story masquerading as lit-fic murder mystery, which manages to combine the plot set-ups and Big Bads of a dozen or more X-Files episodes were they to mate with some random police procedural with more “realistic” intentions (already a stretch, I know, but you seriously have no idea the stretchy).”

“The Man from Primrose Lane will hook you from the first sentence”

“It’s always neat to see a magician testdrive a new bit of stagecraft, rather than yanking the same old rabbits out of threadbare hats, sawing the same lady, stepping into the same locked cabinet only–yawn–to disappear, yet again. But the more lasting wow is in the patter, the performance, the shinola surrounding the gag and sidetracking our attention. Renner left me spellbound as much in the confident bark of his narrative voice, the sly puzzlebox structure of his telling, the pop and whistle of the book’s baroque play with themes of obsession as with mere trickery.”

Pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple’s iBookstore

Why I Can’t Be An Atheist

I wish I had that luxury.

That’s what I tell people now, when they ask me if I’m an atheist. I don’t mean it to sound condescending or flippant. I really do wish I had the luxury of doubt that atheists have. I wish I could forget what I experienced in Key West in 2008.

I’m a journalist. My purview is true crime. I’ve written several articles on unsolved murders, met with Death Row inmates, spoken to families of missing women. The story I’ve spent the most time on is the unsolved abduction and murder of Amy Mihaljevic. She was ten years old, my age, when a well-dressed man took her from the Bay Village shopping plaza on October 27, 1989. Her body was found a couple months later in an old wheat field in Ashland County.

Over the years, the FBI has compiled a “Top 25” list of suspects in the case, many of whom I’ve interviewed by now. In 2008, I learned of a man named Dean Runkle, who was once a teacher in the small Cleveland suburb of Amherst. On that Top 25 list, he would be the man at the top.

Runkle is an interesting suspect for many reasons. At the time of Amy’s abduction, he lived two roads away from where her body was found. He was driving the same make and model of Pontiac sedan that took Amy away. A witness to the abduction picked him out of a lineup of 30 people. We know he had an inappropriate relationship with one of his middle school students. By the time he appeared on my radar, he had quit teaching and had fled to Key West, where he lived in a homeless shelter for a few months before finding a minimum wage job.

Compelled to meet every suspect in the case, I flew to Miami on my own dime. I rented a car and drove down through the Keys. When I got there, late that first night, I stopped at the Wendy’s on the north side of the island. Back in Amherst, Wendy’s was where Runkle liked to take his “special” students after school. I figured it was worth checking out.

That was the first time I heard the voice.

It announced itself like a thought, like the voice of my conscience. What are you doing here? You’re wasting your time. What are you doing in Florida while your little boy is home without a father?

I took it as doubt. My own doubt. A bit of myself questioning whether coming to Florida was a good idea. But we know the sound of our own conscience, don’t we? This sounded different. Angry. Mean.

You think you’ll just walk in and find him at Wendy’s? The first place you stop? You’re pathetic. You’re wasting your time.

Still, full of these doubtful thoughts, I did go in. I looked for him in the crowds, eating dinner, but he wasn’t there. I returned to the car and the voice was gone.

I spent the next day searching for Runkle. I showed his photograph to people along the main road near Hemmingway’s old house. Some people recognized him as the old man who sometimes played ragtime piano at the corner bar. Yes, that’s him. Runkle had a piano at the school in Amherst and sometimes played ragtime for the kids. He kept the piano not too far from the cot he had set up in the closet off his classroom.

I knew I was close. But nobody had seen Runkle lately. And nobody knew where on the island he lived.

Finally, I visited a church on the eastern side of the island. It was dinnertime and the deacon was serving food to a line of about fifty homeless people. I showed Runkle’s picture around. One man suggested I talk to a fellow named Mr. Frisby. “If anyone knows your guy, it’s Mr. Frisby. He’s been here forever.”

They called him Mr. Frisby because he was always on the beach, tossing a Frisby to himself. That’s where I found him. “Do you know this man?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Mr. Frisby. “That’s my buddy Dean. He used to look out for me. Good guy.”

“Do you know where he is?”
“Probably at work.”

“Where’s he work?”

“Wendy’s.”

The voice returned as I neared the Wendy’s. Louder this time, almost as if it was an AM radio broadcast and my mind was the tuner and we’d just come through a tunnel.

Leave him alone. Go back to your family. Dean didn’t do it. You’re wasting your time.

This time I went straight to the register. “Is Dean Runkle here?” I asked.

“He should be,” the woman behind the counter said. “He’s the manager. But he called in sick, today. First time in like ever.”

“I’m an old friend from Amherst,” I said. “Can you tell me where he lives?”

She went to check his work documents. No luck. “He never put an address on his paperwork,” she said. “But I think he lives somewhere on the Northeastern corner of the island.”

I drove that way. But time had become an issue and there was just too much island to search. If I didn’t leave for Miami in the next thirty minutes, I would miss my flight home. Despondent, I pulled up to a stop sign and parked the car for a moment.

For the first time in many years, I sent a message out to the universe. Call it a cry for help. Call it a prayer, because that’s what it was. Help me, I asked. If I’m supposed to meet this guy, help me. Amy, if you’re listening…

At that moment, Dean Runkle walked in front of my car.

I pulled through the stop sign and parked on the curb. I jumped out of the car and yelled, “Hey Dean!” He stopped and turned and I jogged over to him. There on the street corner we spoke for several minutes and he told me some things that only implicated himself more in the murder of that little girl. Eventually, he ended the conversation and walked away. But I managed to get a picture of him. I needed that picture. Because… who the hell would ever believe that story when I got home?

I’m a smart guy. I’ve written some books. I believe in evolution. I’ve studied physics. I respect a few great scientists who are vocal atheists. They are the men who say, condescendingly, “What is your proof? Show me some proof that there is a God.”

Be careful what you wish for, is what I think.

I’ve experienced proof of the power of prayer. And that voice that turned on like a radio broadcast at Wendy’s… That teasing, degrading voice. I’d like to doubt that, I really would. I don’t want to believe that demons are real.

This is a story I’ve told a few times over the years but never published. I guess I feared what it would do to my credibility as a journalist. Or what my atheist friends might think of me. I know it sounds crazy.

But it happened. It happened just like that.

As far as a specific religion, I believe there is truth in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In Buddhism. In just about anything outside Scientology. Probably everybody got a piece of it right. I take my son to Christian Sunday School because I’ve benefitted from enough grace to believe that the young carpenter from Nazareth was a little more than human.

All I know for sure is that there is more going on than science alone can explain. It’s only called Faith when there is no proof so I don’t know what I’d call it. But I do know there is something… more.

Read This… The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters

It’s been awhile since I’ve come across a concept so tight and perfect that I had to immediately seek out the book and devour it. But when I heard the pitch for The Last Policeman — a young detective investigates one last murder before the end of the world — I was taken. Usually I’m a little disappointed by these impulsive reads. But goddamn. This one is everything I dared hope for.

I actually listened to the audio version of the book on a 2,000-mile journey around New England during the reporting of my book on the Maura Murray case. So I was in the right mood to listen to this gritty and dark mystery.

So here’s the longer set up. Young Hank Palace works in Concord, the town in which he grew up. He was promoted to detective around the time scientists first spotted 2011GV1, a ginormous asteroid on a collision course with Earth. It is big enough to end civilization as we know it and there is nothing we can do to stop it. As the months tick toward impact, humanity begins to fall apart. Suicides are commonplace. And a lot of people are just quitting their jobs to spend the remaining time finishing their bucket lists. And then Palace finds a a body in a McDonalds bathroom. It looks like another hanger, an accountant who has strangled himself with a belt to hasten the end. But… Palace thinks maybe this one is a murder.

The rest of the book reads like a classic who-done-it, as Palace follows the meager bits of evidence toward their ends. In the process, he uncovers drug runners, insurance fraudsters, and, of course, a femme fatale. There’s also some very interesting side stories that weave in and out of the main narrative: is Palace’s sister caught up in some doomsday cult; is the asteroid really going to hit us or are we being lied to; and what’s up with that scifi serial everyone is obsessed with seeing?

The structure of the story reminded me of Watchmen (especially one eerie scene between Palace and a doomsayer wearing a sandwichboard) and the graphic novel is even mentioned, once. In the end, though, the mystery is very grounded in truth. There is no scifi twist to the murder. The killer had very understandable cold-blooded motive.

The second book of Winter’s Last Policeman trilogy comes out this summer. So read this before July. You’ll want to be ready to devour the next one.

Pick up The Man from Primrose Lane in Paperback!

The Man from Primrose Lane is now available as a trade paperback!

Check out the sweet new cover from the folks over at Picador.

As always, I recommend picking it up at your local, neighborhood independent bookstore but it is also available via Amazon.

I can also report that Chad Feehan is busy writing the script for the Warner Bros./Bradley Cooper adaptation. So be a hipster and read the book before the movie comes out!

 

 

 

 

 

Read This… The Best American Short Stories

According to the New York Times, we’re entering a new Golden Age of short stories due to the explosion of eBook and eReaders and the public’s lazy attitude toward story length. Whatever the reason, I’ve noticed a lot of authors going back to work on their short game. And so this semester, in my Fiction Appreciation class at the University of Akron, we’re reading The Best American Short Stories, 2012. True to its name, there’s some goodies in here. Some stand-outs:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, reads so very true. A story that takes place almost entirely through small talk, we’re treated to a front-row seat at an awful reunion of suburban despots who decide to play a creepy game of “Who’s the hypocrite.” As in, would you really hide Anne Frank or would you turn her into the Nazi’s?

The Other Place, by Mary Gaitskill, is a mesmerizing account of a would-be serial killer’s first target and how she got away. But it’s also a story about how we fear our children will inherit our worst traits, wink wink, nudge nudge. Interesting this ran in the New Yorker. Would it have been published there if it had been written by a man?

Navigators reads like a prequel to Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One. It’s a touching story about a recently-divorced father and his son as they try to beat an 8-bit video game in which the objective is to lose everything you hold dear.

And fuckin Miracle Polish, man. Like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. One of the good ones where the devil makes an appearance, offering a gift.

Beautiful Monsters has your post-apocalyptic dystopia fix, this one set in a world of ageless children who encounter an adult.

George Saunders’ Tenth of December is here. Everyone is raving for it. But it’s just an experiment in extreme POV that kind of gets in the way of the narrative.

Is this the best America has to offer, though? Nuh-uh. Not by a long shot. Next year, they should dig deeper. Hell, be proactive and add a couple self-published eBooks.

Galleycat announces film adaptation of The Man from Primrose Lane and future slate of Renner books.

Lots of sites reported on the movie deal that happened last week, in which Warner Bros. purchased The Man from Primrose Lane for Bradley Cooper.

But inside-book-industry geek blog Galleycat got the scoop on what I’m writing next:

Renner told us that he plans on writing a sequel to the novel called Curse of the Man from Primrose Lane. First, he will finish The Great Forgetting and his true crime book Destination Unknown (about the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray).

Okay. Back to writing…

 

 

 

 

 

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