Murder, He Wrote

Scene staff writer James Renner has collected his best crime writing in his new book, The Serial Killer’s Apprentice and 12
Other True Stories of Cleveland’s Most Intriguing Unsolved Crimes
, published by Gray & Co. We talked to Renner about his ability to tell mystery tales and the mental hazards of following a murder’s trail.
What attracts you to these stories?
The same thing that attracts me to Sherlock Holmes stories or any mystery stories. You’ve got a bank heist, you’ve got disappearances, you’ve got murder, but the one thing all these stories have in common is that none of them have an ending. I like looking for the answer. I also really, really like showing up on the doorstep of someone who’s been hiding for 30 or 40 years, or 10 or 20 years, and they’re a suspect in this old unsolved murder, and they probably did it. And you get to ask them, “Did you kill this person?”

Which true crime tales have influenced you?
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. What I try to borrow from that is the narrative structure of telling a story. If you were sitting around a campfire, you could tell the story and think, Oh, that’s a good story he made up — but it’s true, and it happened in your backyard.
How do you cope personally with the dark aspects of these cases?
I’m on Cymbalta, an antidepressant. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After immersing myself in the book’s title story, I couldn’t sleep at night. It got to a point where I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read. I don’t do as many crime stories as I did before. In my spare time, I’m writing some fun stuff that takes my mind off it. I’m through the dark place.
Did your counselor tell you to stop writing about murder?
Yeah. And I said no, because it pays the bills. I understand true crime structure, and I’m obsessive about these mysteries.

Aren’t there other stories you could take on?
I’m just not as good at writing about other stuff yet. But I’m learning.
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