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: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I will give any book a chance if the author owns a DeLorian. And Ready Player One, by uber-geek Ernest Cline, did not disappoint.

If you don’t know already, RPO is set in the not-too-distant future, where most of humanity works, plays, and shops in a virtual reality simulation known as the OASIS. Meanwhile, the real world is pretty much falling apart due to pollution, an endless Recession, and general neglect–people live in “stacks” of trailers, little hillbilly skyscrapers. And then one day, the reclusive man who created the OASIS (Steve Jobs-stand-in Jim Halliday) dies and leaves his fortune to the first person who can solve the puzzle he’s cleverly hidden within the OASIS. Enter teen hero Wade Watts, a poor kid from the wrong side of the stacks, whose vast knowledge of 80’s video games and trivia may help him reach his goal before the evil corporate goons who are trying to get there first.

The story has been described as “Willy Wanka meets the Matrix,” but to me it was much more like a geeky Da Vinci Code. The frenetic pacing is there, and the narrative is driven by the hero solving seemingly complex riddles.

Ah, but the love is in the details. For anyone who grew up playing Atari 2600 or Commodore 64, while listening to RUSH, this book is a welcome reminder of why the 80’s were so damn cool. Zork. Monty Python. WarGames. Adventure. Blade Runner. Pac-Man. Back to the Future. Pizza arcades, for God’s sake! What happened to our pizza arcades?

It’s no wonder someone like Ridley Scott snatched up the film rights. But it’s going to be a copyright nightmare to get all the players on board. Can’t wait to see this one in a theater with my kid.

Oh, and for those who have not yet read it, take some time and brush up on your 80’s video game history by clicking the links below.


Read This… Koko, by Peter Straub

Found this novel staring at me from the shelf of a used book store about a year ago. I picked it up, saw it was a first edition, and decided I had nothing to lose at the discounted price of $2.50. As I walked it to the counter, a single playing card fell out of the middle of the book, where, I assume, someone had marked a page. Only later did I come to discover how disturbing an omen this was.

My only exposure to Peter Straub (excellent Slate interview here) before this book was through his collaborations with Stephen King in the Talisman saga. I feel a little sad that I’ve found him only now. It’s been too long since I’ve fallen in love with a book. And I’m smitten with this one.

Koko is my favorite kind of story–a quest that brings together mismatched characters who would never befriend each other under normal circumstances. It’s a tale about adults coming together to face a demon they thought they left behind years ago. In this way, it reminds a bit of King’s IT, another great story that sticks with you. Three Vietnam veterans (a lawyer, a doctor and carpenter) reunite to track down a serial killer who they believe was part of their platoon during the war. This killer has been going around offing people connected to their unit and leaving a souvenir in their mouths–a regimental playing card with the word “Koko” written on it.

Like the best novels written in the 80’s and 90’s, it’s a big friggin book, clocking in at 560 pages. Long enough to get lost in the story of these men and their hunt for a killer.

Straub’s writing is wonderful. Through scenes of mundane human existence he explores universal themes of redemption, grace, the nature of evil and forgiveness. In this way, his narrative–often revolving around cooking and writing–reminded me of John Irving more than King. But he also understands suspense and horror like King. I have to say I’m also humbled by the recognition of the research Straub must have done for this book–half of which is set in Saigon and Bangkok and Vietnam–especially when I consider this was done in a world before the Internet.

In the end, Straub’s alter-ego reflects on listening to good jazz in a tent in Vietnam. “We heard fear dissolved by mastery,” he thinks. The book is about applying this thought to life. And it’s something I intend to do as much as I can.

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.

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