A devious tale follows the man from Primrose Lane

A convoluted crime yarn disorients but enthralls Nicky Pellegrino.

I'm not convinced that I understood every detail of The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner (Text, $37). It left me puzzling over lots of aspects of its plot although, interestingly, that didn't seem to detract from my enjoyment. It's one of those novels that starts off as one thing - a crime thriller with a tragic love story at its centre - then becomes something else entirely when you're more than halfway through.

The story is set in Ohio and opens with a gruesome discovery, the body of a local hermit known as the Man from Primrose Lane, who has been shot and all his fingers cut off and destroyed in a kitchen blender. Known for always wearing mittens, the man turns out to have been living under a stolen identity and his death flummoxes local cops.

Four years later crime writer David Neff becomes interested in the unsolved murder. Neff has been a broken man since the suicide of his wife and is unable to produce a follow-up to his debut book, a best-selling true crime story, because of the mood-altering medication he's taking. Nevertheless, he starts to research this intriguing case and discovers an odd personal link - the Man from Primrose Lane was obsessed with a young, red-headed woman who looks very like his own late wife and her twin sister, who was abducted as a little girl and never found.

The novel moves back and forth in time and shifts in point of view in a way that can leave the reader with disorienting literary motion sickness. Things occur that you are certain are significant but have no idea why. The plot doesn't just twist and turn, it ricochets. There is mystery after mystery and, like Neff, you struggle to piece it all together. The result does have its flaws but I can't fault it as far as creepiness and suspense goes.

The Man From Primrose Lane is a strange beast - a hybrid novel that refuses to obey the rules and stick within the boundaries of any one genre. There are clues to the leap the story will take but they are easy enough to miss. This is a fiction debut for Renner who, like his protagonist, is a true crime writer with a background in journalism. It's incredibly ambitious and a tough book to review without ruining the big reveal. What I can say is that it's about evil and obsession. It's devious, maze-like and unnerving; a shape-shifter of a novel that asks a fair amount of its readers.

If you're going to pick it up I recommend you steer clear of online reviews that are bound to contain disastrous spoilers. And be warned, you literally won't be able to put this book down - at least not too often - or you'll lose the thread of the plot and struggle to pick it back up again.

With some mysteries it's easy enough to see where the story is going. This one not only defies any predictions but, even after the final page is turned, you may still be trying to fathom it. I know I am.

- Herald on Sunday

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