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James Renner is an award-winning journalist, and author of True Crime Addict, the definitive book on the Maura Murray disappearance. He also hosts the podcast, The Philosophy of Crime. In 2019, he founded The Porchlight Project which raises money for new DNA testing and genetic genealogy for Ohio cold cases. In May, 2020, James Zastawnik was arrested for the murder of Barbara Blatnik, thanks to the work of genealogists funded by the Porchlight Project.

Read This: The Shadow of Death, by Philip Ginsburg

Shadow of Death is as much about the loss of innocence of a region in America—and, America itself—as much as it is about the dogged hunt by North Country detectives for a killer of women. First published in 1993, journalist Philip Ginsburg’s book tells the true story of a wave of murders that took place in the early 80’s around the town of Claremont, on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. If In Cold Blood was a testament to its time, Shadow of Death shows just how far we’ve fallen in the decades since.

Beginning as early as 1968, as many as nine people fell victim to a sadistic serial killer who kidnapped, tortured, and then brutally stabbed his prey to death. Finally, in 1988, a woman managed a miraculous escape and the killer fell silent. Ginsburg’s book is told from the perspective of the detectives, the victims, and a college professor who is recruited by police to figure out the killer’s mind. The professor, John Philpin, eventually becomes one of the first criminal profilers, though the effect of getting into the mind of a murderer takes its toll on him.

Though the killer is never caught, several suspects are identified by investigators one other bad man is sent to prison during the course of their search.

My interest in this book stems from my research into the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray, who vanished not far from where this serial killer once hunted. In fact, the circumstances of finding Maura’s abandoned car locked on the side of the road mirrors once murder in particular.

Could a long-silent killer be stalking prey in the Valley again? Or are these cases related only in their similar depravity?

If you’re a fan of true crime, you must own this book. It’s taut and suspenseful all the way through. And Ginsburg’s grasp of character and place is quite artful. This book is one of the very best in its genre.

Read This: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

All good things must come to an end.

Finished Mockingjay last night around 2 a.m. because the last 75 pages grabbed me tight and wouldn’t let go until it had its way with me. In this third and final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and company wage war against the Capitol, revenge for 75 years of games and death for the working class of Panem. But Katniss is most interested is putting an arrow through President Snow’s cold heart.

Like Catching Fire, this third story meanders for a bit at the beginning and readers are left wondering about the goals of the narrative. Again, many deaths happen off-stage. I actually growled when Katniss (and the reader) were left behind for a “high stakes” Capitol raid. But then something wonderful happens. Collins, like many of her YA saga-writing peers, could have played it safe and written a pat ending where everything is sweet and wrapped in a pretty bow. J.K. Rowling committed a literary travesty by not actually sacrificing Harry and others at the end of her series. Heroes, after all, can only be as good as the bad guys are bad and how bad can they really be if everyone is still alive at the end? Anyway, Collins is a risky writer. She put all her chips on the table for the final third of this book and she kicked some ass. She more than makes up for the off-stage deaths that happened before. By the end, the stage is soaked in blood. There is a death in here that is so shocking and meaningful that the very act of daring to write it elevated the series to the level of Ray Bradbury or perhaps Joseph Heller.

Speaking of Bradbury, did you catch the homage in Katniss’s troop number? Fahrenheit 451 is certainly an influence on Collins. Panem is a world glued to the television and preoccupied with war games, too.

There are many parallels here to Hamlet, as well. Especially the whole business with Katniss constantly wondering just what the hell she should do. There was this production of Hamlet at Kent State many years ago. At the end of the play, when the king is lying dead, Fortinbras enters with his troops and takes the thrown. And he’s dressed like a Nazi. If all we’re really doing is replacing one tyrant with another, why are we even fighting?

This book is required reading for any author daring to end a saga. Collins gets it right.

Read This: Who Killed Betsy?

Long before Jerry Sandusky, Penn State learned well how to cover up the darkest aspects of human nature. During the Thanksgiving break, in 1969, a young student named Betsy Aardsma was murdered in the creepy stacks inside the Pattee Library. Stabbed once, through the heart. Her killer was never found. These days, reporters can’t even request the old student newspaper articles on the case. They’ve been scrubbed from the web and “misplaced” by the university.

That didn’t deter Derek Sherwood, who works as a credit card processor during the day and a reporter at night. In his book, Sherwood takes the existing articles and rumors about the case and uses the documents to tease out new leads. The first half is a detailed account of the days surrounding the murder, in 1969, an introduction to the real Betsy and the men who may have killed her. The second half becomes a kind of character study, in the creepiest sense, of the main suspect, associate professor of geology Richard Haefner. Sherwood takes us deep into the man’s mind and systematically lays out the circumstantial evidence suggesting Haefner’s guilt. Let’s just say Haefner had a lot in common with Sandusky.

I read this book in a day and had terrifying dreams about Haefner last night. The writing is stark and simple but Sherwood shines whenever he allows himself to explore tangential characters who are as weird as Haefner, himself. Fans of true crime need this book.

Read This: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Okay, so I’m officially caught up in the Hunger Games trilogy, now. Can’t wait to pick up the third book tonight!

The first book is a masterpiece. And there is much that I love about this second story, Catching Fire. It is, after all, the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy. Katniss, fresh off her victory in the Hunger Games, finds herself unwittingly the symbol of rebellion in this post-apocalyptic world where the Capitol rules over 12 separated Districts. The stakes are raised when President Snow announces that the 75th Games will be a special “quarter quell” in which previous Hunger Games winners will face off against each other. Really, though, its a clever ploy to publicly kill Katniss and squash the rebellion. And when we get to the games (finally) the book becomes impossible to put down.

Collins is an expert at foreshadowing and misdirection. She’s a magician of a writer, able to surprise even the most cynical readers. And, make no mistake, surprising a reader is a VERY hard and daring thing to pull off. If you fuck it up, your reader ends up hating you because it seems condescending.

So, yes, I like this book. However, it takes its time getting to the action. The first hundred and fifty pages is a lot of meandering. In some ways it reminded me of the first half of the last Harry Potter book. We don’t have a feel for where the narration is taking us and that feels disconcerting. The only reason, I think, that we hang in there is because we trust Collins as an author. We know she’ll get take us somewhere nice soon. And that seems just a bit like cheating.

My hunch is that the meandering beginning of Catching Fire is actually an attempt by Collins to foreshadow aspects of the final volume. In some ways, Empire did this, too. All second parts do this when the author knows it will be a trilogy, I guess. We’ll see.

There was really only one place in the novel that seemed like a missed opportunity, though. (SPOILER COMING). When Peeta’s heart stops beating, I wanted the cannon to sound. That would have been cool.