Once begun, this is one of those novels that draw a reader inexorably into a world where complex patterns replace the ordinary, even grievous and inexplicable losses an acceptable consequence of events. The multi-layered plot unfolds in stages: the kidnapping of a young girl; a writer’s love affair with a woman shadowed by a tragic past; a convicted serial killer; the brutal murder of an elderly recluse; and a physics problem focusing on the hibernation cycle of the cicada. Renner sews these disparate elements together in a tightly-woven tapestry that is brilliant, if deeply disturbing, provocative and salted with possibilities beyond the usual expectations of a novel.
David Neff’s first true-crime book, The Serial Killer’s Protégé, is a runaway bestseller, but the study of a killer’s twisted psyche has turned his world inside-out. The murderer’s voice inhabits Neff’s brain as the author’s obsession with the crimes grows. David has sunk into an emotional black hole since his wife’s suicide. Their four-year-old son, Tanner, is his father’s constant companion. When the publisher of The Serial Killer’s Protégé encourages Neff to write the story of a bizarre and brutal murder of “The Man from Primrose Lane,” also known by locals as “The Man with a Thousand Mittens,” the writer considers leaving his cocoon to reengage with the world. The victim rarely seen outside his home, the violent death has thus far led to no suspects and few clues, even to the dead man’s identity.
There are any number of strange twists to fuel an eerie sense of predetermination as the tale unfolds: David’s wife, Elizabeth, is a twin whose sister was kidnapped at age ten, the child’s fate unresolved. The writer’s obsession with the serial killer draws him into a dark netherworld inhabited by killers and pedophiles who prey on the innocent and unsuspecting. All the missing girls David researches are red-haired and eerily similar (including his wife). Elizabeth is deeply troubled, psychologically unavailable, but Neff is attracted to that very elusiveness and mystery. Then there is a series of random events—the interruption of a kidnapping in progress, a sheriff confronted with a vision that is logically impossible. At the heart of it all: the identity of the Man from Primrose Lane.
Renner takes his readers on a wild and often shocking ride that veers between horror and fascination, the realm of those who face the void fearlessly and without flinching. Though he offers an intriguing explanation for the inexplicable, the author makes no attempt to deny the dark side, a pervasive evil that haunts his characters like nightmares that don’t fade with wakefulness, pulling Neff deeper into a conundrum he is compelled to understand or die trying. That it all happens near Akron, Ohio, seems fitting, evil seething in the heartland: “Stories like this make ghosts out of the living.” Renner is a storyteller of extraordinary skill who lays his groundwork flawlessly. Only a talented few can truly capture the ambiguity of human nature, horror and the possibilities of the universe in web both believable and frightening. Renner is one of the few.