CLE Reads: The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner

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This month's CLE Read The Man from Primrose LaneIt’s been a while since I’ve read a book that elicited an emotional reaction from me as strong as this month’s CLE Read.

Given it’s a mystery novel, this surprised me even more.  When I’m reading a mystery, I care about the characters only on a superficial level. I typically have just one thing on my mind – solving the mystery.

And I’m pretty good at it. When you’ve been fed a steady diet of murder mysteries since you were 5, it’s hard not to guess whodunit anymore.

But as I dug further and further into James Renner’s The Man from Primrose Lane, I became so entranced by the drama and puzzles unfolding in the main character’s life that the murder almost became secondary.

The book opens with the story of an old man from Akron. His name is a mystery, known only as The Man from Primrose Lane.

No one really knows anything about him except that on the few occasions they see him out of the house, he’s wearing mittens – even in the sweltering heat of summer.

Then one day he’s found dead in his living room with a gunshot to the chest and all his fingers gone.

Jump ahead a few years and we meet David Neff. After writing a bestselling true-crime book about an Ohio serial killer, David is broken by his wife’s suicide. Now he lives in a world muted by medication, until his publisher brings him the mystery of the man with a thousand mittens.

As David chases down the man’s identity, he becomes wrapped up in his old obsessions and along the way uncovers a staggering truth about his own wife’s death.

It’s a dark book. And ballsy – repeatedly twisting backwards and forwards in time, hoping you stick around for the ride.

There’s a good bit of convoluted sci-fi in it, which for a moment tested even my threshold for “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff” (I couldn’t resist a Doctor Who reference).

Digging through the layers reminded me of unfurling a parachute and watching it whip in the wind – unable to grasp how immense the fabric is.

The scene of the crime: I found myself especially creeped out when one of the book's kidnappings takes place outside Big Fun on Coventry.

One of my favorite Cleveland landmarks, Coventry’s Big Fun, makes a cameo in The Man from Primrose Lane

However, Renner makes it easy to suspend your disbelief. Even if some of the stranger elements aren’t your thing, Renner has created such a unique premise and paints his characters so well, that I found myself incredibly invested – even obsessed – in figuring out how it would all piece together.

And then there’s the musicality to his narrative, which rewards the reader with passages like this:

“His fingers crashed upon the keys and were lost, there, in a blur of motion and noise; the clunk of flesh on wood converted to the vibration of thin strings singing the most beautiful music. It was the sound of creation, of inspiration, of spirit let loose after a long imprisonment. It was the sound David heard, sometimes, as he drifted off to sleep thinking about the structure of an article. It was the sound of human accomplishment, the sound of a voice speaking over the din of a crowd. It was the sound of a child greeting a parent at the door. It was also the sound of lover’s gentle whisper.”

It’s scenes like the one above that had me entranced while reading The Man from Primrose Lane. Even after I’d put my Nook down, I was still caught up in its dark, moody, and beautiful world.

Renner does a great job of balancing this intense world-building with the mystery. While the clues are very well-hidden, they don’t get completely overshadowed by the rest of the book.

For all of the fantastical elements, the kidnappings and murders are portrayed very realistically. They speak to the cold truth that you can’t always protect someone from a ruthless predator – no matter how hard you try.

In addition to writing The Man from Primrose Lane, Renner has authored It Came from Ohio and true crime books like Amy: My Search for her Killer.

Similar to The Man from Primrose Lane‘s protagonist, he’s dedicated a good part of his life to hunting a killer. And My Search for her Killer recounts the strange characters and circumstances surrounding Amy Mihaljevic’s murder.

I didn’t know this until after I read The Man from Primrose Lane, but I think it made me enjoy the novel more – reaffirming a notion I consider very true: although it’s not always possible to find resolution in reality, stories help us find solace by stretching our limits just a little further.

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You can purchase The Man from Primrose Lane online from Barnes and Noble for $11.14. Or support your favorite independent bookstore.

This is the latest in my CLE Reads series. Check out some of my previous installments:

I’ll be back next month with Derf Backderf’s autobiographical graphic novel My Friend Dahmer.  And if you have any recommendations of Northeast Ohio-related books to read, please leave a comment below.

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