Mar 1 2012 5:00pm

Murders Most Foul: The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner

The Man from Primrose Lane by James RennerThe downside to being a TV-aholic that everything you read, see, or do reminds you of some pop culture tidbit. If you, like me, happen to be a Simpsons fan, there’s a relatable quote for just about everything. For example, the titular character in The Man from Primrose Lane wore mittens all the time, meaning each time I read the word “mittens” my brain immediately went “I can’t get in trouble at school, they put me in the remedial class. I’m surrounded by arsonists and kids with mittens pinned to their jackets all year round,” followed quickly by “My cat’s name is Mittens.” Of course, none of this has anything to do with the book beyond the fact that your kindly reviewer is a TV geek who should probably spend more time with real people and less time resorting her Netflix queue.

To get to the matter at hand, The Man from Primrose Lane is, ostensibly, a book about a man named David Neff who uncovers a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a vest that is somehow connected to his wife’s untimely death and the unsolved bizarre murder of the be-mittened man. But that’s just the hook, the appetizer, the start of strange, horrible, terrible things to come.

Neff is a journalist cum successful true crime writer (one of many personal attributes Renner applies to his hero) who excommunicated himself from the world after his wife killed herself the day their son Tanner was born. Still suffering PTSD from the case that made him famous, the anti-psychotic medication and his general malaise has turned him off of writing for good.  When his publisher drops the Man with a Thousand Mittens in his lap, David can’t resist and his world begins to spiral out of control. He discovers that the mystery of who killed whom and why is far more complicated than he could ever imagine.

And that’s about all I can tell you. Anything more detailed runs into spoilers territory. The first 100 or so pages are your run of the mill thriller. They’re entertaining and engaging, and, frankly, my favorite part of the book. David’s old case comes back to haunt him and it’s more or less a retelling of the bitter ex-cop consumed by that One Last Case. Then things get weird, really really weird. We’re talking hard sci-fi weird.

Renner is full of great ideas. Maybe a few too many ideas. As I said, I absolutely loved the first chunk of the book and was honestly a little disappointed to see it turn from the realistic to the fantastic. With each new chapter he had another interesting or clever idea that was explored briefly and then swallowed by the next shiny new thing; there are seeds to five great novels in this one good book.

The only other problematic area is that he is writing SFF as if he were still a true crime journalist. The “just the facts, ma’am” style doesn’t mesh entirely well with the genre elements. And as bothersome as I found Renner’s habit of constantly describing the scent of something by using totally unrelated things as comparative points — “This room smelled like gun grease and old hot dogs” — that faded to the background as the story/stories picked up speed.

There are so many things I want to say about this book and literally can’t without giving away major plot points. I have no clue how his editor is going to market this book, and it is simply amazing that any publisher was willing to take such a risk. That alone is reason enough to adore this book. It’s very existence gives me hope for the future of the publishing industry. Fortunately for Renner and his potential pool of readers, The Man From Primrose Lane is also an accessible, enaging, curiosity-piquing read. You may be hesitant to pick it up, but once you do you’ll have a damn hard time putting it down.

You can read an excerpt from The Man From Primrose Lane right here.

Alex Brown is a research librarian by day, writer by night, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. One of these days she will go out and have a life, but right now she’s too busy re-watching Roar. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.

Ron Hogan
1. RonHogan
Reviewing this book, as I found out writing about it for Shelf Awareness, is REALLY hard -- like you suggest, you hit a point where the things you want to say about it wind up giving away too much of the surprise. I couldn't even use the joke title I came up with because it would reveal the central premise for too many readers.

(If you REALLY want to know, and I'm telling you right now this is a massive spoiler: The Silence of All You Zombies.)

I WILL say this much: I thought the gradual introduction of the hard-SF components you're hinting at worked, and seemed to unfold in a reasonable, internally consistent fashion. (In that respect, it's like The Prestige: At some point, there's only one possible way the bulk of this could be happening, and that's exactly the direction the story goes.) It's when the story moved beyond being a Thomas Harris/Robert Heinlein mashup and tried to add Stephen King into the mix that I was like, "No, these aren't fitting together right."
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
@Ron: Like your title. I was really tempted to use How Many Davids Can You Fit In An Egg? which, while obscure, still gives away the whole end of the book.

I definitely agree that you reach a point of no return, where the stuff that eventually unfolds simply HAS to unfold because there aren't any other ways it could go. But it was the mixing of too many genres that felt jarring to me, because they all come at you in the last 100 pages or so. They were all interesting stories/genres that I'd love a whole book out of, but felt a bit overwhelming in context. That said, it's still a really good book.
Ron Hogan
3. RonHogan
@Milo1313 Or The Man from Primrose Lane Who Folded Himself!

Although now I'm just showing my age.

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