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THE MAN FROM PRIMROSE LANE by James Renner: Book Review [The Ryan Dixon Line]

The Man From Primrose Lane is pretty fucking great.

Is it okay if I just end my review right here? After all, in an ideal world, one sentence of profuse praise for James Renner’s debut novel would be enough to convince you to go to Amazon right now and hit “purchase.”

But that’s not how it works, is it? You might trust my taste from reading previous reviews, but we still don’t know each other well enough for you to turn over hard-earned money on a blind recommendation.

Normally right about now I’d present a thorough synopsis of this novel, but straying too far from the opening chapter risks this review running the length of a novel itself due to the sheer amount of “spoiler alerts” I’d have to include.

What I do feel safe in revealing is that the first chapter of The Man From Primrose Lane begins, as so many of the best mysteries do, with a murder. An old hermit is found dead in his house. A bullet has pierced his chest, his fingers have been chopped off and stuffed into a nearby blender. I suppose it’s safe to venture just a little further into the plot… our protagonist David Neff, a famous true crime author (who shares many similarities with Renner) is tasked with uncovering the hermit’s murderer.

This procedural might be a conventional narrative tightrope, but the moment Renner’s plot steps upon it, it begins to deliriously (and sometimes drunkenly) dance. As our protagonist descends into the investigation, most typical thrillers would pivot on three major twists, placed in the well-hued final three quarters of the book.  Renner includes these narrative benchmarks, but then this overachieving novelist has the audacity to bend turns into the twists, fill subplots with nano-plots and add-in tones and genres like an ambidextrous juggler who not only continues to toss new items into the air when it seems everything should have crashed long ago, but reveals additional limbs along the way.

Yes, there are several elements that strain credulity and try our patience. These literary misdemeanors are most rampant in the final third of the novel where a first-person narration from a new character jarringly joins the already existing third-person view, while the suddenly inch-long Dan Brown-esque chapters reeks of a cheap (and unneeded) attempt to build suspense.

But by the time we arrive to those final hundred-odd pages Renner has provided us with enough narrative adhesive that he could introduce tap-dancing dinosaurs, a feral band of cat magicians or even spunky single girls living in the Big Apple and we’d still go the distance with him, if for no other reason than to see if he’ll really be able to tie the size sixteen shoe plot he has constructed.

Amazingly enough, Renner actually managed to end the book without a shake of the head or snicker from this reader. Better yet, when finished, the first thing you’ll want to do is start over, which you giddily realize was Renner’s plan all along.

There’s one other reason to purchase The Man From Primrose Lane. Quite simply, it’s the best mystery/thriller/horror/romance/science-fiction/fantasy novel you’ll read this year.

Follow Ryan Dixon on Twitter @ryanbdixon. Order a copy of his graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening. Follow author James Renner on Twitter @JamesRenner.