'Man From Primrose Lane' a crazy, imaginative tale

MICHELLE WIENER For The Associated Press Published:

"The Man From Primrose Lane" (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG) by James Renner: In 2008, an eccentric, reclusive old man known only as the Man from Primrose Lane is murdered in his home in West Akron, Ohio.

Four years later, best-selling true crime writer David Neff, mourning his wife's suicide, is persuaded by his publisher to investigate the man's true identity. Following the clues, Neff uncovers one bizarre coincidence after another. One of them involves the abduction of young red-haired girls. One of the girls was the sister of Neff's wife. Another girl, who managed to avoid being kidnapped, is Katy Keenan, whose life is meticulously chronicled in notebooks found in the Man from Primrose Lane's house.

And to tell you more might give away key aspects of the novel and spoil a superbly crazy and imaginative story.

James Renner's "The Man From Primrose Lane" is at its heart about obsession, and it defiantly mashes together disparate literary genres. It's a thriller and a detective story, plus science fiction and romance with a little near-future dystopia thrown in. The last is one of my favorite parts of the book, a vision of the middle of the 21st century in which Cleveland has been evacuated on President John Boehner's orders.

Renner has written true crime books himself, and has incorporated some of those stories into his novel. The Man from Primrose Lane has his origins in a real unsolved case, as does the peculiar appearance of the Loveland Frog, another favorite part recalling the B-grade monster movies from the 1950s.

The relentless plot twists (and they are relentless), the shifting time periods and perspectives will no doubt exasperate some readers, but I recommend the book, especially to those who enjoy brain-meltingly strange stories. And "The Man From Primrose Lane" is, in fact, pretty fantastic. It's an ambitious novel that attempts many things and succeeds so well that the moments that miss are readily forgiven.

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