James Renner calls himself a "reformed muckraker" but there is plenty of muck, murder and mystery in his debut novel, The Man from Primrose Lane (Sarah Crichton Books, $26). Renner, known to many Northeastern Ohio readers for his true crime reporting for Cleveland's weeklies and his two nonfiction books, Amy: My Search for Her Killer and The Serial Killer's Apprentice, makes his first foray into fiction with a book that defies categorization — a novel that manages to intertwine crime, science fiction and a love story from an engrossing autobiographical viewpoint.
"It's The World According to Garp meets the X-Files," says the 33-year-old Akron resident. "You've got a classic mystery until the last third of the book. I hope the crime readers will embrace the science fiction and the science fiction people will embrace the crime."
Ultimately, the book is about obsession. The main character is David Neff, a former crime reporter for a Cleveland weekly turned best-selling author. Like Renner, he is consumed with an old case involving the abduction of a young girl. Researching and writing the book was therapeutic for Renner, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"You get so involved in these tragedies it can wear off on you like secondhand smoke," he says. "It's a bear to deal with. When you expose yourself to that much darkness, it has an effect on you. By doing this book, I was able to work through some of the frustrations from the Amy Mihaljevic case. I always wanted to think I was smarter than the guy that did that to her."
Renner has long been fascinated with time travel, which plays an important role in his novel. "I remember seeing Back to the Future as a kid, and I hooked up shoeboxes full of batteries to my bike and rode down a big hill. I wanted to go back in time, but all I got was a bloody shoulder."
He is also a lifelong fan of Stephen King and in 2005 produced a film version of King's short story All That You Love Will Be Carried Away, featuring Harvey Pekar and Joe Bob Briggs.
Renner recently completed a second novel, which he describes as "a love letter to conspiracy theories." The Man From Primrose Lane is already being shopped as a movie project and is being translated in several languages. "I hope it's a lot of fun for Cleveland readers. I put a lot of Easter eggs in it for them."