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The Man from Primrose Lane

The Man from Primrose Lane

3.5 26
by James Renner

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A mind-bending, genre-twisting debut novel

In West Akron, Ohio, there lived a reclusive elderly man who always wore mittens, even in July. He had no friends and no family; all over town, he was known as the Man from Primrose Lane. And on a summer day, someone murdered him.

Fast-forward four years. David Neff, the bestselling author of a true-crime book


A mind-bending, genre-twisting debut novel

In West Akron, Ohio, there lived a reclusive elderly man who always wore mittens, even in July. He had no friends and no family; all over town, he was known as the Man from Primrose Lane. And on a summer day, someone murdered him.

Fast-forward four years. David Neff, the bestselling author of a true-crime book about an Ohio serial killer, is a broken man after his wife's inexplicable suicide. When an unexpected visit from an old friend introduces him to the strange mystery of "the man with a thousand mittens," David decides to investigate. What he finds draws him back into a world he thought he had left behind forever. And the closer David gets to uncovering the true identity of the Man from Primrose Lane, the more he begins to understand the dangerous power of his own obsessions and how they may be connected to the deaths of both the old hermit and his beloved wife.

Deviously plotted and full of dark wit, James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane is an audacious debut that boasts as many twists as a roller coaster. But beneath its turns, it's a spellbinding story about our obsessions: the dangerous sway they have over us and the fates of those we love.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
An eccentric recluse is murdered, and true-crime author David Neff, whose wife recently committed suicide, investigates the crime, taking him to the brink of sanity as he discovers links between his wife and the murdered man. VERDICT Compelling, genre-twisting, and explicit in description, this title confounds and entertains readers with a tale that exploits both obsession and reality. (Xpress Reviews, 3/18/12)

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The Man from Primrose Lane

By James Renner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 James Renner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5024-4




David Neff missed a lot of things about his wife, but the thing he missed the most was the way she used to sit on couches, leaning against one giant pillow, her knees tucked up against her chest, her legs trailing behind her as she watched a Lifetime movie or some ridiculous reality show. He pointed out to her once, before she died, that no man ever sits on a couch like that, that it was a uniquely feminine trait. It was a little thing that delighted him. He loved the carefree way she moved her feet to the rhythm of the lights on the screen. When he finally went through her things two months after she was in the ground, he'd found a photograph of her as a child, curled up on her parents' sofa in the exact manner he remembered. He'd stuck the photo to the refrigerator. It was still there, next to the over-outlined caricature drawings of their four-year-old boy.

Like most Thursday afternoons, David was on the living room floor, in front of the couch — her couch — with a bowl of SpaghettiOs in his lap, a bag of Kettle Chips to his right, watching an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants he'd seen five times, but TiVo'd anyway. The boy, Tanner, napped upstairs.

David was a once-handsome man who had grown pudgy around the edges. His dark hair hung too long above his eyes, a bit too gray for thirty-four. Three-day-old stubble shaded his double chin. A dollop of dried ketchup was smeared across the front of his shirt, evidence of the barely won battle that had been Tanner's lunch.

The room around David appeared to be the remnants of a livable space that had been torn apart by some sort of laundry- and toy-filled IED. Every other week, Tanner's great-aunt came by and picked the boy's clothes off the mantel, lamps, and ceiling fan, laundered them, and returned them, folded, to the boy's bedroom dresser. She collected the broken robots into dustbins, sorted stuffed frogs and Legos into their assorted tubs, and replaced the batteries in the boy's plastic-ball shooter and tiny grand piano. It only took them two days to get the room out of order again. David didn't mind the mess. And neither did Tanner.

Because his wife's death had been ruled a suicide, her insurance had not paid out and David had not been able to work a single day since. But he and the boy didn't need the money. Royalties from David's first book — The Serial Killer's Protégé — had climbed to the seven-figure mark a couple years ago and sales remained strong, thanks, in part, to a Rolling Stone article that had forever labeled him as "the best true crime writer since Truman Capote." David no longer kept track of how much he had in the bank, but he knew it was more than he'd ever imagined making in his life.

After his wife's death and until just a moment from right now, David had resigned himself to the fact that The Serial Killer's Protégé would also be his only book, and that that was okay, because Tanner was alive and he could live out the remainder of his days keeping his boy safe and comfortable and happy.

But then there was a knock at the front door.

David wasn't expecting company. Tanner's aunt wasn't due for a few days. He assumed it was a neighborhood kid pushing school band–sale candy, so he ignored it. But then the knock came again, too loud to be anything but an adult.

He walked to the door and peered through the porthole. There was a man on his doorstep. A thin man with wire-rim glasses and a ring of hair circling a bald dome.


David winced. He didn't want to see Paul. He didn't want to talk to Paul. It was Paul's fault that he wasn't able to grieve the way he sometimes felt he deserved — in a penniless gutter with other heartbroken souls.

Paul Sheppard was his publisher, the man who had read David's proposal for a book based on notes left behind by convicted killer Ronil Brune and recognized a modicum of talent. Before The Serial Killer's Protégé, Paul had been an exclusively local publisher, the sort that shipped glossy copies of Cleveland Steelworker Memories and Cleveland's Haunted History to local indie bookstores. Today, he kept an office in Manhattan.

Reluctantly, David opened the door.

"He's alive!" Paul shouted, raising his arms in the air like Dr. Frankenstein.

"Shhhh! You'll wake the kid," he said. He motioned for Paul to come in.

"Sorry." Stepping into the main room, Paul shook his head and whistled. "I saw this documentary on Discovery the other day," he said. "It was about this woman who lives in Manhattan and she's this ridiculous pack rat and never throws anything away. She had this path carved out in clutter she could use to get to the bathroom and kitchen."

"Yeah?" prodded David.

"You're like this far away from becoming that woman," he said. "Her family had her committed, you know."

"Thank God you're not my family, Paul," he said, smiling a little. "Don't sit on that!" He jumped to the recliner over which Paul was squatting and batted away yesterday's Beacon Journal. Underneath was a plastic dish that had once held a microwavable Salisbury steak dinner. David tossed it to the far corner of the room, where it landed next to a wastebasket. "I wasn't expecting company."

"I left you twenty messages. The only reason I knew you weren't dead is you keep depositing my checks."

Paul sat on the chair as David collapsed on the sofa, sending a mostly empty biggie-sized soda tumbling to the floor. "It is nice to see you," David said sincerely. "How's biz?"

"You know," said Paul, making a seesaw gesture. "Protégé is still selling. I think half the universities in the country are teaching it in their journalism programs, so that helps it move every semester. I just signed this new up-and-comer from Pittsburgh, whose manuscript knocks me out."

"It's not a memoir, is it? Tell me it's not another memoir."

"In fact, it is a memoir. It's about an alcoholic steel smelter who went to prison for grand theft and, when he got out, cleaned himself up by slowly constructing a jet-powered semi truck in his garage. It wouldn't kill you to blurb it."

"Is that why you came over?"

"Of course not," said Paul, a thin smile playing at one corner of his mouth. From his sports jacket pocket, the publisher pulled a bound galley of a book. He tossed it to David, who snatched it out of the air one-handed.

On the front was a grainy black-and-white picture of a grassy hill soaked in summer heat. Atop the hill sat a 1970s-era police cruiser, its driver's-side door ajar. Behind the car stretched a row of old-growth pine trees, gnarled branches like arthritic hands. David knew this photograph. He'd discovered it, in fact, tucked into a box labeled MISCELLANEOUS in the Press archives at Cleveland State. It was a picture of a crime scene, an artifact of one of the many unsolved cases he'd written about before he'd become completely obsessed with Ronil Brune. The title of the book was The Lesser Mysteries of Greater Cleveland. At the bottom was David's name.

"What's this?" he asked.

"Your next book," said Paul. "That's just a mock-up, but I wanted you to see it, to feel the weight of it in your hands. It's a good cover, no?"

"It's a great cover, Paul," he said. "Only problem is, I didn't write this."

"You did. It's twelve of your best true crime articles from your Independent days, Beverly Jarosz, Sam Sheppard, Lisa Pruett. I cleaned up the language and moved things around a bit here and there — don't look at me like that, you were still learning dramatic narrative structure back then — and I put them all together into this little trade paperback. Something for next summer's beach crowd, I'm thinking. Something to tide everyone over until the next David Neff book."

"I don't need the money."

"I don't, either."

"Then why?"

Paul glanced around the room, then back at David. "I think you need something to remind you why you were ever a writer in the first place," said Paul. "A little New England collegiate lecture tour? Some free publicity in the trades? Groupies?"

"True crime groupies are mostly middle-aged women who look like my high school home-ec teacher," said David. "Nobody wants to buy a bunch of old stories. Anyone who wanted to read them has read them online already."

"Ah," said Paul, raising a finger. "They're not all reprints. Check out the table of contents."

"'The Curious Case of the Man from Primrose Lane?'"

"Your next project," said Paul. "It's the next mystery you're going to investigate, the new piece we'll use to market the book."

"The Man from Primrose Lane? Never heard of him. Who is he?"

"Geez, David. Don't you read the paper anymore?" Paul regarded his friend silently for a moment, studying his features, perhaps to discern if there was any trace of the old David Neff in there someplace. "You used to be the eternal optimist," he said. "You thought you could solve all of these mysteries, remember?"

"How'd that work out?"

"Are you fucking blind? Look around you. What paid for this house? These toys? The Volkswagen in the garage? Your four-year-old son's trust fund? You solved the Ronil Brune case. The most fucked-up case anybody ever heard of."

"I'm just a dad now."

"Four years is long enough to live in the dark. You told me once that you never felt better than when you were writing these articles and researching these cases. This is a new mystery to dive into."

"A little ironic, don't you think?" asked David. "You want to pull me out of my depression by making me investigate some unsolved murder."

"There's no dead kids in this one. At least not murdered ones."

"That you know of."

"Do you want to hear about it?"

David rubbed his hands together distractedly. Was he already feeling a little rush? His heart stutter-stepped in his chest. His neck itched. Yes, he remembered this well. A jonesing, a craving for something he knew he shouldn't accept. He imagined it was the way his mother must feel every time she saw a waiter pour a glass of wine in a restaurant. This was what almost ruined his marriage once upon a time. "Yes," he whispered.

"The Man from Primrose Lane was a recluse who lived on the west side of Akron, only about a mile from here, off Merriman."

"Right, I know Primrose. Wait. Are you talking about the old man who used to ramble down to the park in the middle of the summer sometimes wearing mittens?"

"I believe so, yes."

"I saw him a few times after we moved here. Strange dude. Walked like he had somewhere important to go, except I never saw him anywhere except walking. Never at the store or in line for Chinese takeout or stuff like that. Never made eye contact. Gave me the heebie-jeebies. I always thought he looked a little like my Uncle Ira on a bender. He's dead, I take it."


"How could someone have a grudge against him if he didn't know anybody? Was it a burglary?"

"Doesn't look like it. It seems personal. Whoever did it hacked the old man's fingers off at the second knuckle and fed them into the blender. Sliced his palms to shreds. Then he was dragged into the living room and shot once in the stomach. Killer left him there to die. As much as they can figure, it took maybe a half hour for him to bleed out. The old man was forced to sit there and let it happen."

"Holy shit. When was this?"

Paul repositioned himself in the chair, suddenly uncomfortable. "They found the man's body on June twenty-first," he said. "June twenty-first, 2008."

"Two days after Elizabeth." Paul nodded again.

"No wonder I didn't hear about it." David sighed loudly, then shook his head. "Suspects?"

"The police are clueless, and I mean that quite literally."

"What was the guy's real name?"

"Well," said Paul with a smile, "that's where it gets interesting. When he purchased his house in 1969, he used the Social Security number of a man named Joseph Howard King, but that isn't who he really was."

"What do you mean?"

"A year after they find the body, the police get a call from the bank. Turns out this guy had about seven hundred grand in a savings account and another three and a half million in stocks and bonds. Using the name Joseph Howard King, he invested heavily in technology — Apple, Google, stuff like that. But the bank can't find his next of kin, right? So they call the cops for help. By then, though, the detectives have been working the case for a year and they haven't found this guy's family, either. A probate judge gets involved because of the money. I mean, somebody's going to collect a big paycheck as soon as they figure out who it should go to."

"That money's probably the motive," said David. "Four million dollars means four million reasons to kill him, if you're an heir."

"Right. Except no family has come forward to claim it. So this judge appoints a man named Albert Beachum as executor of the estate. Apparently Beachum's family had been running errands for the Man from Primrose Lane for years. He allows Beachum to draw money from the account to relocate the guy's remains from his pauper's grave to a bigger plot in Mount Peace Cemetery. And when Beachum says, 'Screw the police, I want to hire a private eye to track this man's family down,' the judge says, 'Fine,' and lets him pay for his own investigator. The PI uses Joseph Howard King's Social Security number to get his birth certificate. That has the guy's parents' names and the name of the hospital where he was born. So the PI goes and pulls the records from the hospital in the years leading up to and following King's birth."

"He found Joseph Howard King's siblings."

Paul touched his nose with one finger and pointed at David. "Bingo. Another kid named King with the same parents was born two years earlier at the same hospital. It's the guy's sister, Carol. So the PI's really excited, right? He's about to call this woman up and tell her she just hit the lottery. Except, when he does, Carol tells him that her brother Joe has been dead since 1932. Died in a car crash in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, at the age of six. The crash also killed Mom and Dad. Carol was at home with the babysitter."

"He stole a dead kid's ID and disappeared to Akron, Ohio," said David, his eyes wide and slightly unfocused, the look of a stoner in the afterglow of a good hit. "You know, I bet he came from Bellefonte. He probably read about the accident in the paper and remembered it years later when he needed to change his name for whatever reason. What are they going to do with the money now?"

"Everyone is fighting over it. Carol wants it, of course. Figures since this mystery man stole her brother's ID she has some right to it. She has a pretty big-time attorney working for her. The Beachums seem like nice people, but they've got a hand in this, too, and have retained their own lawyer. On top of that, you have the Summit County executive and the mayor staking claim. Law says if you can't find next of kin, money goes to the state, but the city and county want a piece of it, too."

"And the police?"

"The police haven't said peep. And there's one more twist to this, just to complicate the picture."

"Of course there is."

"Among the old man's very scant personal effects were a bunch of battered notebooks."

David leaned forward. "And inside the notebooks?"

"Inside is the life story of a girl he apparently never met, a record of every softball game she played in, every award of merit she won in school, every boyfriend, every minor traffic ticket. All the details of her life were collected in these notebooks in scrawled handwriting they can only assume belongs to the Man from Primrose Lane."

"He was a stalker, huh?"

"Of the highest degree."

"And this girl, she's going after the money, too, I take it?" asked David.

Paul shook his head. "Nope. She couldn't care less. Which is a shame, because those notebooks are like love letters in places. Obviously, the old man cared a great deal for the girl, sorry, young woman, in his own twisted way. He never names her as his beneficiary, but almost implies ... well, you'll have to read the newspaper clippings."

David sat on the couch, staring into the air above the television. Periodically, he scratched at the stubble on his boyish face. Eventually his eyes settled on a picture of Tanner, resting on the mantel. The boy was about two in the photograph, his shaggy hair whipping about in the wind pulling out over the ocean behind him.

"It's a good story," he said at last.

"I know."

"Sounds like it's been mostly reported, though."

Paul waved his hand in the air. "It's been reported, but it hasn't been written. And there's still plenty mystery for you. Who killed him, who he really was, why he was stalking this girl ..."

"I appreciate what you're trying to do," said David. "And if I was ready to start writing again, this would be about the perfect case. But I can't."


David stood up and motioned for Paul to follow. "Step into my office," he said. "Let me buy you a drink."


Excerpted from The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner. Copyright © 2012 James Renner. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Renner is the author of two books of nonfiction that detail his adventures in investigative journalism: Amy: My Search for Her Killer and The Serial Killer's Apprentice. His work has been featured in Best American Crime Reporting and Best Creative Nonfiction. He lives in Ohio.

JAMES RENNER is the author of The Serial Killer's Apprentice and several other works of nonfiction. His true crime stories have appeared in The Best American Crime Writing anthology, as well the Cleveland Scene and Cracked.com. His method of using social media to solve cold cases was the subject of a CNN profile, in 2015. He has also written two novels, The Man from Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting. He lives in Akron with his wife and children.

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The Man from Primrose Lane: A Novel 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Marcie77 More than 1 year ago
The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner starts off with the gruesome murder of a recluse that had the odd habit of always wearing mittens. For years after the murder, David Neff, author of a best selling true-crime book, is asked to look into the man from Primrose Lane's mysterious death. Neff agrees and then the mystery begins to unfold. Neff is aghast to find that his deceased wife is somehow mixed up in the murder. Furthermore the clues are leading back to the horrific case he thought was closed years ago. Neff is driven by obsession, determination and compulsion to put all the pieces together before it's too late. The Man From Primrose Lane is a hauntingly good read. The story consists of a few disturbing details, such as the crimes of pedophiles and murderers, that are at times hard to read but it also makes the story line more dramatic. Renner doesn't go into too much detail concerning these crimes but enough to make your skin crawl. The story is told through flashbacks and real time. This method adds to building suspense in the novel. This is definitely one of the more interesting books I've read in some time. The ending wasn't at all as I expected. It has a twist that will leave your mind whirling. Renner will leave you speculating and gauging not only how the book would end but also as to who the real criminal in this book is. The Man From Primrose Lane is more for older audiences.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very hard to put down. Loved the intertwining stories.
PeteAS More than 1 year ago
A solitary individual inhabits a house at the end of Primrose Lane. The author takes the reader on an intriguing pathway to identify this individual using the main character to lead the reader in his attempts to determine the factors about his wife's traumatic death.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is a book that will be hard for you to sit down. The author really has a way with keeping you on the edge of your seat. It is a book that I will read again for sure.
kochc09 More than 1 year ago
This is by far the most bizarre book I have ever read. And I mean that in the best way possible! The Man From Primrose Lane is written in a very unique way that keeps you on your toes. Each chapter skips around in time and between people (and worlds!), yet as a reader you are still able to keep up and stay engaged in the story with minimum confusion. For the longest time there are portions of the story that leave you absolutely baffled as to how they will all somehow connect in the end. But they do! And it is so worth the read to find out how. When you finally realize the true premise of the story it almost seems unreal. This is definitely one of my favorite books of all time. A must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started as one of the most engrossing stories I had read in some time. Then the plot got implausible and then really came off the rails. Feels like author painted himself into a corner so to speak. Then came the deus ex machina moment and the book lost all interest. I did finish it because I had to see how the train wreck would end. Honestly, its ending is basically no ending given the devolution of the plot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
3.5 stars. Entertaining murder mystery with a twist.
Anonymous 6 months ago
excellent loved the plot and the storyline
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read about 200 pages and thought it was pretty good but then it went to scientific unrealistic zone and I did not know what was going on...could not finish.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Am not going to finish it. Are these alternate universes or what? Doesnt matter. I am done with it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This apparently adds sci fi fantasy to confusion of ending dangling endings are not mystery stories which should follow the convebtion of start middle end the present style of overwriting confuses
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if you are looking for something different, then give this a try
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the beginning and then it gets weird. I finished it because i had to know"who done it." I skipped to the end and was disappointed. It was more science fiction than mystery. I don't like science fiction and if you don't either, don't waste your time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Start with a writer's quest to solve a crime that another man was executed for and the writer feels he can prove his innocence and show that the crimes were committed by someone els. So many other details emerge in his obsession with a series of crimes that I became completely absorbed in the story until part three started. I felt that I was transported into a Stephen King novel and the author did not have a good ending for the first part. I just could not wait to finish it at this point and it completed lost my interest. I just did not think it was appealing. I wouldn't be anxious to read anything else by this author and will not recommend this to my book club members.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow is all I can say, waiting for more!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book started off so good, really drawing me in. Then the author started taking it off into directions that made it more of a science fiction read which honestly is not my thing. This could have maintained a great story line without having to go that direction. The only reason I finished the book was to see who "did it" - unfortunately, I'm still not sure.