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.

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…

 

 

 

 

 

New Short Stories!

I released a few new short stories over on Smashwords today, which are immediately available for downloading to all eReader devices. They are also filtering out to retail outlets such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble (I’ll have those links for you soon!)

Catch em all:

Keepsakes: A hoarder is forced to come to terms with the disappearance of her husband by finding something, anything to throw away.

Googleplex: A young couple discover their home may exist within a computer glitch.

Gordie and Skoot Kill a Bear: Two young veterans return to Iraq to reclaim their souls, which fled from their bodies during combat.

Drop me a line and let me know what you think!

Read This… The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov

I love going back to the classics. It’s fun to see what inspired modern-day novelists and screenwriters when they were kids. The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov, surely inspired cool stories like The Adjustment Bureau, Fringe, 12 Monkeys, Looper, and Primer.

Check it out: the story is told from the perspective of an “Observer” whose job it is to tweak history so that the aggregate majority of humans live in the highest achievable state of happiness. Just outside of Time is this place called Eternity, where numerous, emotionless monk-like middle management types toil away in an office complex, plotting reality changes to history. Observer Andrew Harlan actually becomes one of the trusted “Technicians” who must figure out the minimal changes necessary to put Time on the right course.

Of course Harlan then encounters a young woman whose existence causes him to question the ethics of what he is doing.

This has everything we’ve come to love about time travel stories: cool machines, mind-numbing paradoxes, and philosophical discussions about the power of “intention” — and it was written in 1955! Ultimately, though, it remains a very tight story about the education of Harlan. His gal breaks it down for him in the end: “In ironing out the disasters of Reality, Eternity rules out the triumphs as well. It is in meeting the great tests that mankind can most successfully rise to great heights.”

There is also quite a nice twist ending I don’t want to spoil, involving a Galactic Empire. Trust me, it fits. It’s short and sweet so check it out.

 

Go See This… The Hobbit 3D at 48fps

Caught a screening of The Hobbit at Valley View in Cleveland last night. This is the only place in NE Ohio where you can see it in 3D at 48 frames per second, in XD sound, the way God and Peter Jackson intended. A single ticket sets you back $14. But is it worth it? What is 48fps really like? Here are my impressions the morning after.

Remember that scene in The Prestige where Hugh Jackman shows off his Tesla transporting machine for the first time and that old stage producer is sitting there and kind of jumps in fright when old Hugh disappears and then reappears behind him? The old man says, “Forgive me. It’s been so long since I’ve seen real magic.” And then he warns him to “dress it up” a bit so the audience can still pretend it’s just illusion. That’s pretty much what it was like.

All the critics and nerds whining about how the 48fps makes the film look fake have it wrong. It makes it look too real. More than you’re ready for. For me, it felt like I was at Hale Farm and Village, that Civil-war era community they took us to in gradeschool. It felt like I was immersed in a artificial setting watching people act out a scene around me. It’s so real you become aware of the characters in a way we are not used to. And that’s the best way I can explain how it feels. It feels more like a stage production than any film you’ve ever seen. But that’s not bad, in my opinion. It’s just a different experience. It might be film but it’s not a MOVIE and it shouldn’t be called one. This is something new. So new, there is no name for it.

You know what would really be fucking cool in 48fps? A courtroom drama. Something like 12 Angry Men. Something where you’ve got real people in a real, tight situation. That’s how they should have introduced 48fps because it’s so goddamn real it messes with your mind when you see things like fighting rock giants and trolls and orcs. The immersiveness of the experience is telling you, holy shit, that’s a real goddamn goblin. But your mind is too smart for that. It insists it can’t be real. And then you’re spending all this time fighting with yourself. It kind of pulls you away from it.

For all its faults, you owe yourself to go see this movie in 48fps/3D. It will remind you of how you believed in real magic when you were a kid.

 

Read This: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

You don’t really need me to tell you to read Gone Girl. It’s this year’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” with all the appropriate zeitgeist.

But if you’ve been hiding under a rock, here’s what it’s about: you know those stories you see on the news all the time? The ones where the pretty young wife disappears and the husband starts acting all suspicious? Yeah, it’s that story. For the first half, anyway. Then, oh my lanta! Then the novel becomes somethings else — a thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock, full of wonderful melodrama.

Having a little experience with novels that take a sudden, jolting turn hundreds of pages in, I understand how difficult this book must’ve been to get published. Gillian, her agent, her editor, her publisher all deserve a pat on the back (and a raise!) for taking such a risk. As a reader I love this kind of mind-fuckery. There’s not enough of it in the literary world–and make no mistake, Gillian is literary, even if she’s hiding behind genre. Here’s one of my favorite sentences: “Maybe it was my conscience, scratching back to the surface from its secret oubliette.” That’s literary.

I had the pleasure of meeting the writer at a book fair in Ohio last month. She signed it for my wife, “To Julie, from her sweet husband.” After reading the book, I have to wonder if that wasn’t some sly joke.

To say anymore would be to ruin the book’s surprises. Just read it already.

Read This: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

So someone went and wrote a literary novel about the zombie apocalypse. Kind of the Ulysses of flesh-eating fiction.

The plot is sparse. Such as it is, the narrative follows a young man called Mark Spitz and the two other members of his survivalist unit as they comb through lower Manhattan killing straggler zombies in an effort to reclaim the city, or at least safeguard Zone One. But we see much of the world through flashbacks which take us from First Night to the present day. The longer we stay with Spitz and his company, the more we learn about their past.

I guess the chief complaint from bloggers about this book is how it constantly jumps from this present to flashback, sometimes mid-paragraph–and it can be jarring at times. My wife is a serious fan of post-apocalyptic novels and she gave up after twenty pages. Partly because of the non-linear structure, but also because this story is DENSE. Colson is a word fetishist and does not make it easy for the reader. The dude would be no fun to play Scrabble with.

I LOVED the book, though. LOVED it. It’s dreamy. It’s stream-of-consciousness almost. A fever dream of a vision of our nightmares. Mark and his friends are fully formed and we learn a lot about the human condition (and the message, here, is strangely hopeful) in the little scenes when death approaches in the form of the endless undead army.

Take your time with this one. It’s worth it.

Read This: My Friend Dahmer, by Derf

My Friend Dahmer

The artist mostly known as “Derf” was a bit of a mystery during my tenure at the Cleveland Scene and Free Times. He was the guy behind the coolest comic strip in the paper, The City, which ripped on Cleveland every week but also seemed to celebrate its crazy residents at the same time. I would occasionally see him at company parties, quietly watching from the back, this tall dude with a long face who usually seemed pissed at something.

There was this rumor he’d been friends with the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in high school. I’d never doubted it. But I was a little surprised when he dared to turn his artist’s eye to that part of his life. It would be tempting for any storyteller, sure, but in order to go there you have to show Dahmer as a sympathetic character. Because he was, after all, human. And a friend to some people. And would readers really want to go there?

Earlier this year, Derf finally got around to telling his story in My Friend Dahmer, a thick, gorgeous graphic novel that presents the cannibal killer as a tragic character, someone who might been saved even, if only one fucking adult had bothered to wonder why Jeffrey was acting so strangely and had cared enough to get him some help. Dahmer did not go quietly into full-on sociopathic insanity. The signs were there — animal mutilations, binge drinking at 15, a shocking lack of empathy for fellow human beings — and they were hard to miss. It’s like watching Anakin turn into Darth Vader, only slowly and with no definable event to motivate the fall.

The book covers Dahmer and Derf’s last years of high school in bucolic Bath, Ohio, one of the safest neighborhoods in the state. And by the end of the summer following their senior year, both have discovered their passion — Derf has become a fledgling artist, Dahmer a practicing psychopath and murderer. Drawn in high-def contrast, with his slightly-grotesque portrayal of the human form, this book serves as the universal countering force of Dahmer’s own dark obsession. The art’s creation only made possible as a result of the acts it chronicles and the effect it had on the artist.

In summation: way cool.

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