Two Snakes Around a Pepper Tree

July 4, 2016   •   By Karen Brissette

I BECAME A FAN of James Renner after reading his jaw-droppingly twisty novel The Man from Primrose Lane back in 2012. I then had to wait three whole years for his equally intense follow-up: The Great Forgetting, which came out this past November. And just when I was preparing myself for another three-year wait — arms starting to fold, foot already impatiently tapping — six months later he released another book, a nonfiction title called True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray.

This is his second true crime book after 2006’s Amy: My Search for Her Killer in which Renner investigated the disappearance and murder of 10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic, whose case had consumed him from the age of 11, when he developed a crush on her missing persons photo. True Crime Addict is no less personal a story, as Renner details his growing obsession with finding the answers in Murray’s disappearance, the blurring of the boundaries between his life and his investigation, and the lasting effects of his immersion into such a profoundly convoluted case. 


KAREN BRISSETTE: You began looking into Maura Murray’s disappearance as a distracting mental exercise after being very dramatically fired from your job as a reporter for the Cleveland Scene and then seeing a 20/20 special on two missing women: Murray and Brooke Wilberger. Wilberger appeared to have been the victim of an abduction, while Murray’s situation was more enigmatic. Did you choose Murray’s case specifically because it presented a more complicated puzzle?

JAMES RENNER: Indeed. Maura’s case is actually two mysteries wrapped around each other like two snakes around a pepper tree. The first mystery is, of course: What the hell happened to Maura Murray? The second mystery is: What was she doing in the White Mountains that day? She should have been at UMass, finishing her clinicals. Instead, she got into her old car, withdrew almost all the cash in her bank account, bought some booze, and drove into the North Country, where she accidentally went off the road and ended up in a snow bank.

I knew that if I could answer one of those questions, the answer to the others would be much more apparent. After spending six years researching the case, I believe I’ve answered the second question. There is reason to believe Maura was running away to start a new life.

Incidentally, two snakes around a pepper tree is the kind of visual that makes me such a fan of yours. Do you ever think about what would have happened had you focused on Wilberger’s case instead? Do you think you made the right choice?

You say these things as if I have a choice. But I’m an addict. An addict of many things, true crime being one of them. That’s where the title comes from. There’s no real choice, there. The Maura Murray case was as fascinating as a new street drug. It got its hooks in me and wouldn’t let me go.

Is there a version of James Renner out in the multiverse who did investigate Wilberger’s case, and what happened to him?

Well, there would be no book for that man, since police linked Wilberger’s murder to Joel Patrick Courtney. I would have had to find a new case and who knows where that would have led. Maybe I’d be tracking down the Original Night Stalker by now. I shudder to imagine that timeline.

You took on this project to “keep you sane,” to challenge yourself once the intellectual engagement and deadlines of your reporter’s life were removed. But by maintaining a blog where you shared your research throughout the investigation, you also attracted a lot of attention to yourself, some of it negative: accusations of invading the Murray family’s privacy or trying to cash in on her tragedy, as well as a man posting extremely creepy YouTube videos targeting you and your children. Did it ultimately have any therapeutic value for you, or was it more trouble than it was worth?

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

This case is poison and it poisons everyone who gets near it. Maura’s family was never helpful, I think, because they knew the sorts of skeletons my investigation would bring out of the closets. Their secrets were more important to them than resolution. And then there were the stalkers and internet trolls, some of whom threatened my children. It was nuts. I can’t say it was therapeutic. But it did make me realize this is not healthy, this career I’d found for myself. It was the realization that I was an addict, that I had to leave this part of my life behind and move on. No more cold cases for me.

But that realization itself is therapeutic, no? Just identifying the toxic impulses and carving them out of your life?

I suppose you’re right. I’m still too in the center of it all to see it for what it is.

Throughout your investigation, you came up against a great deal of resistance from Maura’s friends and family members. Is that just par for the course when functioning as an investigative journalist, or was it particularly striking in this case?

Other than Fred Murray, I have never encountered a father of a missing woman who didn’t want more help finding his daughter. That was a big red flag for me at the beginning. No, this is not normal. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now. Most families of the missing will open their doors to you, invite you in, help you in any way they can because they know the more information you share, the more likely it is they will see their loved ones again.

A few years ago, I met with the families of Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry when the girls were still missing in Cleveland. Gina’s father was completely open and honest with me, talking about some of the not exactly legal things he did in the search for his daughter. He gave me Castro’s name, by the way. He knew that Arlene Castro was the last person seen with Gina. But I never spoke to Arlene because she was a minor and we didn’t want to upset her. I have to live with that loose thread I never followed. Never again will I make that mistake.

That was actually one of the most chilling things in this book, for me — how making an appropriate and thoughtful decision may have ultimately led to more suffering. Hindsight is a terrible burden sometimes. Speaking of chilling, in this book, you share a number of stranger-than-fiction incidents involving your young son and his eerie mind-reading skills. Do you have any additional stories you would like to share? Please, please, please. 

My son is … unique. And wonderful. And a pain in the ass. Like his father. We’ve been told he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum. My guess is he is perceptive in ways we can’t quite follow. And sometimes this comes across as maybe psychic. Like he reads your mind. It’s spooky sometimes.

I really don’t have anything to top that strange moment in the book where he asks me if I want to go to jail. And then I end up in jail like the next day on a contempt of court charge after yelling at a municipal judge in Lakewood. I’ll have to ask him for some lucky numbers.

I could honestly read a whole book about his prescient declarations. That Walmart scene gave me the shivers. In your epilogue, you declare, “A book is a static thing. Unchanging. But a mystery moves. It lives. It evolves. Even as we edited this book, it evolved. At the eleventh hour, I discovered new information” … You've been investigating this case since 2009, and reporting on it since 2011. How did you determine the point at which your book was “finished,” since there are still so many unanswered questions?

To me, the book felt finished when I got healthy enough to look for other stories. So, when I stopped drinking and stopped being obsessed with finding Maura Murray. That is the journey of the book, the personal journey of putting James Renner back together again. Part of doing that was realizing I’d done as much investigation into the case as I could. I’d discovered Maura’s motive to flee. That was enough.

Do you plan to keep the Maura Murray blog active now that the book has been published? If not, will you steer the energies of your team of “Irregulars” toward another case, or has your true crime itch been scratched for now?

I will keep up on the blog, only because I suspect this book will shake out some interesting new leads for the police to follow. I’ll share with my readers and my Irregulars along the way. Maybe we can find that missing piece of the puzzle and bring closure to this one case.

Switching gears for a moment to your fiction writing: your novels are so difficult to classify, being these slipstreamy genre blends which surprise the reader by veering off into delightfully unexpected territory. Because I am a readers’ advisory nerd and terminology fascinates me — is there a word you would use to describe your writing style?

How about, “post-modern, meta, self-referential timey-wimey stuff”?

Ha ha ha — I will use that in my future readers’ advisory work. “It’s … you know — timey-wimey.” Are there authors or books you love that you feel are criminally unsung that you’d like to spotlight for us?

Ben H. Winters. I love everything that cat writes.

And Donald Ray Pollock, Ohio’s Cormac McCarthy. And also Benjamin Hale, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.

Do you have any news for fans of your first novel, The Man From Primrose Lane?

Yes! It’s being developed for TV. Hold on to your butts. I should have some news very soon.

If only you had your son’s mind-reading abilities — I was thinking more along the lines of … sequel?

Good news! The sequel to The Man from Primrose Lane is already written. It’s called Copperhead Island and finds Neff investigating two strange cases: a dead girl from Ukraine who washed up on the shore of Lake Erie, and a dead man with no identity who was found on a beach in Adelaide. Perhaps the two cases are connected somehow? Hmm.


Karen Brissette is a voracious reader and the most popular reviewer on Goodreads.