The Man From Primrose Lane By James Renner (The Text Publishing Company, $37)
Reviewed by Helen Lehndorf
In the opening of this book – a grisly and strange murder is being investigated. True crime writer, David Neff is locked in grief after the suicide of his wife then a friend tries to interest him in investigating the grisly murder and soon, against his better judgement, Neff gets enmeshed in the unravelling of the crime. What begins as a seemingly straightforward crime novel plot soon becomes a confusing, yet exhilarating labyrinth…a kind of ‘Russian Doll’ of a plot where you are not quite sure which layer of the narrative you are being shown.
This book is a real challenge to review, because to discuss the plot too much will spoil the surprising and genre-bending elements of the book for the reader. The marketing of this book is interesting. My review copy came with a statement from the author, of which I’m not sure it helps or hinders the experience of reading the book….Renner (more or less) encourages the reader to google him and hints at the idea this fictional book may contain some elements of non-fiction. What a tease! Renner, like the book’s protaganist, is a true crime writer. His previous two books are both non-fiction accounts of his investigative journalism. He is clearly delighting in trying to mess with the reader’s head…and he (mostly) succeeds. In the author statement, he says: “When I was younger I picked up a copy of the Neverending Story, the version with the black and red type. The red type denoted the times when Bastian sensed another world. There came a moment in the second half of the book where the red type appeared where it should not – it’s presence implied that someone else was reading a story about ME. I have never found another book that pulled off that creepy blending of truth and fantasy quite as well. I tried to reach for that here.”
This novel promises more than it ultimately delivers, but nonetheless is a startling, ambitious and entertaining read along the way. The narrator soon becomes aware of his obsessions and what they have meant for him and his son. The world we assumed we were in at the beginning of the book morphs into something else entirely. Renner takes the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope to it’s zenith.
The book is ultimately more about love, time and obsession than crime, and the ending of the book leaves you pondering the very nature of consciousness and destiny. To write in any more depth about the plot of the book would be to cheat the reader. (I should say, too, that I am not a seasoned crime fiction reader and I am a little squeamish, so I found some of the more grisly elements of the book hard to read and wasn’t thrilled about some of the extremely dark imagery in my head, but I understand that kind of imagery goes with the territory of crime fiction.) If you are looking for a surprising, gripping read…the sort of book which will see you flicking back and forward as you go searching for clues in the earlier pages and looking up half-remembered references…a story within a story within a story…then this is definitely the book for you! Read it, but don’t be cruel and tell your friends all about the plot, just say nothing and tell them to read it for themselves.