Title: The Man From Primrose Lane
Author: James Renner
Publisher: FSG: Sarah Crichton Books
Published: 6th March
A mysterious recluse who always wears mittens is murdered. Four years later, true crime writer David Neff, a near-recluse himself following his wife's suicide, reluctantly takes on the task of investigating the murder.
As he fights mental illness, grief, and the fall out from his last investigation, Neff gradually falls under the spell of the case, facing the past and a darkness he thought he'd escaped.
His obsession with the Man from Primrose Lane grows when he discovers unexpected connections between the recluse, Neff's late wife, the abduction of her twin sister and the attempted abduction of other girls who bear an uncanny resemblance to them.
This novel is not for the squeamish. I think it's only fair to tell you this immediately. Renner, a true crime writer himself, writes much of the book in that style, including the grisly details of cases involving rape, child abuse and murder. If you don't think you can handle that, it's probably not the book for you.
Still with me? Good. If you can handle that, you will be rewarded with a fiercely intelligent, well-written, creepy, deeply emotive tale. It's a fascinating examination of the nature of obsession, obsessive love and faith. It's a cracking mystery too.
This novel plays with genre, conventions and expectations like a child with a cardboard box. On the surface, it's straight fiction. As I said, it features many of the conventions of true crime, but it is far more accomplished than many books of that genre. I truly wondered if it was SF at all, or whether I'd been given it on the basis of its arguable horror content. I didn't mind. It's brilliant and I was thoroughly engaged and ready to eagerly pass it on to friends who love good fiction, genre or not.
But then. Then I started noticing little things. Little tiny details that could be hallucinations. Little tiny details that could be side-effects of heavy-duty anti-depressives, or tricks of memory, or delusions. Little tiny details that could be SF. Maybe. James Renner, you are such a tease.
About two thirds of the way in, he fesses up. Yes, The Man From Primrose Lane is science fiction. And how! Oh, and it might be fantasy too. And it's definitely horror as well. It's a little box of delights and I gorged myself on it.
Most, if not all, of the characters in this novel are broken in some way. Every family is torn apart, either by divorce, murder or suicide. This exacerbates the sense of fracturing created by the different story threads. There are chapters and vignettes which appear to have nothing to do with the main plot. They're interesting, beautifully sketched and as compelling as the main story, but they don't appear to belong in the same book. Until they do. And then you can't believe you didn't spot it earlier, because they fit so very well.
He weaves a plot around the interconnectedness of everything that would make even Dirk Gently stand back in admiration. There are so many of these threads, and their unravelling is so subtly done that you work your way through most of them without even realising. There was a moment when much of the plot clicked into place for me and I put the book down for a minute, constructing a flow chart in my mind and grinning.
The protagonist, David Neff, is not a paragon. He's deeply flawed and makes some awful decisions, and at times I even felt him to be cruel. But I empathised with him so much. He's a man struggling to hold things together for the sake of his child and failing. He fears tackling another true crime case because he was so damaged by his last foray, but doesn't recognise that he can't get much more broken than he already is. He's brave and intelligent and compassionate, and his obsessive nature could equally be described as tenacity.
Renner fills the book with cheeky little references, many of which you won't spot until you finish the novel and look at the cover, author info and dedication again. He's a proper little monkey. In the hands of a less skilled writer, these references could have fallen into the Mary Sue trap, but they just made me love his writing even more.
This novel is playful, clever, horrific and beautiful. If you made it past the first paragraph of my review, I suggest you read it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.