Journalist. Palindrome. Writer.

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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.

NEW EBOOK! Short Nonfiction from Cleveland

finalcoverJust published!


A collection of a bunch of short nonfiction stories I wrote as a reporter in Cleveland. 250 pages worth of profiles, scandals, and strangeness for $1.99

Full description:

33 pieces of short nonfiction. Includes profiles of famous/infamous Ohioans like Bill Watterson, Tom Batiuk, Jeff Krotine, Louis Stokes, Calvin Blocker, Dave Chappelle, Dr. Robert White, Lawrence Krauss, Bill O’Neill, and Tim Russo. There is a section devoted to scandals, featuring articles about Marc Dann, Kevin Coughlin, Ross Verba, Tim Timken, and a kickback scheme at Hopkins airport. Another section delves into secret societies, including Pipestone, TEAM, and the cult of Scientology.


Read the First Chapter of EXPEDITION Z

I’m writing this new yarn for the StoryShift app, called EXPEDITION Z. It takes place 20 years after the zombie apocalypse and follows a young cadet ordered to travel across the former United States to see if anyone else survived. Here’s the first chapter to get you started (click on the title page). Chapter 5 just went up today but you need the StoryShift app to catch up and to vote on the direction of Chapter 6.

Do it. It’s fun. There’s lots more cool comics and stories on StoryShift and the best part is, it’s totes free and available on all your devices.

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Read Some Comics

sandman-neil-gaimanWhen I was a kid, I loved comic books. But my family lived way the hell out in the country. The closest store, Spellbinders, was a half hour drive, in Kent, and trips were few and far between. Thanks to my six year old son, I’ve become addicted to them, once again, this last year. We live in Akron, now, and there’s a great comic shop in the Falls, J.C. Comics and Cards. I started just buying Spongebob comics for Casey, as a reward for good behavior. Aaaand now I’m hooked on a bunch and spending way too much money each month to support my habit.


If you haven’t visited the comics store since you were kid, you really should head back. There’s a lot going on. My personal favorites: X-Files Season 10 (Joe Harris brings back everything we loved about the series, including the Lone Gunmen, CSM, and the black goo); Walking Dead (duh. the cool thing is, the comics are about two seasons ahead of the show); Ghostbusters (this month, they’re revisiting the Zuul storyline); Letter 44 (cool conspiracy stuff).


And whenever I’m in there, I’m also digging through back issues of Powers (excellent early comic by Clevelander Brian Michael Bendis), Swampthing (mostly for the excellent artwork), and the Dark Tower stories.



Somehow, I also missed out on some big contemporary classics, which are prohibitively expensive to buy in pieces so I’m reading them via my library card. Must reads: Sandman (of fucking course), Locke & Key (by Uncle Steve’s kid), and for any Cleveland native (or true-crime fan) Torso.


Find the comic shop in your area and drop twenty bucks. Get caught up.









I’m part of the debut lineup of authors for an exciting new venture. It’s a new app called StoryShift, where readers help shape the narrative of genre stories. Think Choose Your Own adventure, only the story is being written as you read!

It seemed like the perfect platform to try out this idea I’ve been thinking on for a while about a young cadet who is sent on a mission into forgotten lands, 20 years after the zombie apocalypse.

StoryShift is available as a FREE app just about anywhere you get apps. Or you can click on the link and read it online.

My story is titled, EXPEDITION Z.

I haven’t been this excited in a project for a long time. This is something new and fresh and the kind folks at Evil-Dog Games were cool enough to let me be a part of it.

Get the app. Read the story. VOTE! And let me know what you think!

Read This: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan


A handful of stories have changed my life and every time I find one I worry that it might be the last.

These are stories that inspired me to write better or to look at the world differently or to look at myself differently. The first was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. Later came Cloud Atlas and Garp. I just finished a new one: A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was so taken by this novel that, halfway through, I had the university bookstore order a bunch of copies so I could teach it in the Fall.

What’s it about? Like the other books that fall into this category, it depends upon the reader. On the surface, it’s the story of several people’s lives and how they intersect with each other through a span of forty (or so) years. But, it’s also about: music; writing; love; compulsion; obsession; destruction; time; grace; insanity; sanity; city life; blondes; sex; regret; empathy…

Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, someone you’ve met in passing in an earlier chapter. And each chapter is told in a different voice, or style (including second-person and power-point). Most of the people we encounter are caught in orbit around two people: Sasha (a young kleptomaniac) and Bennie (an aging music mogul). Though, it could be said Bennie finds himself in orbit around Sasha, too (I suppose he’s Jupiter).

The novel is structured like an album, complete with A and B side and chapter titles that gives us the feels of good song titles. Music (and art) is a thread that weaves these stories together, after all. There are harmonies and dissonant cords. You get the picture.

There’s just so goddamn much meat on the bone. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Ulysses. But it’s not that pretentiously dense. It’s accessible (I think). There are enough allusions and connections and themes to get lost in for a long time.

In the end, this is a book that does an impossible thing: it approximates the elegant complexity of life, and how our path veers off course in mundane moments, and how we are all kept on notice by the goon of time.

Read This: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

night filmThe premise of this story is pretty amazeballs: What would happen if David Lynch’s daughter committed suicide (or was murdered…) and Mikael Blomkvist took up the case? Essentially, that’s Night Film, the second novel by Pessl. Disgraced journalist (is there any other kind these days?) Scott McGrath is kicking around Manhattan trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life after having been sued by Stanislas (you can’t spell “stanislas” without “satan”) Cordova over a bad piece of writing. McGrath suspects Cordova, a reclusive film auteur who has driven a few actors insane, may be doing naughty things to children on his palatial estate. When Ashley, Stanislas’ daughter, is found dead, McGrath becomes obsessed with proving she died because of her father’s dark habits.

The novel is about the journey and how McGrath figures out the mystery. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this journalist teams up with a willful and strange young woman who is attracted to the silver fox. Also on their team is Ashley’s former beau, a troubled young man who just can’t stand still. But the story is also a noir novel about film noir, a meta-study of the tropes of the most bizarre filmmakers, people like Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowski or Dario Argento. If you’re a film buff you’ll love it.

There are some cool scenes in here. My favorite was McGrath’s drug-addled run through Cordova’s film studio, where sets from his old movies have been preserved for all time. And the creepy Oubliette sex club on Long Island.

Generally, I enjoy long books (this one’s 600 pages). But it felt 75 pages too heavy, especially toward the end.

Speaking of the end, holy smokes! It was as sovereign, deadly, and perfect as one of Cordova’s films.

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.

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