About a year ago DreaminDemon.com, began using the name of the alleged criminal in the title of every blog post. Since then it has become standard practice at many other true-crime blogs, a mimicry that provides no shortage of flattery. Unfortunately for James Renner, no names of the assuredly guilty can grace the titles of his chapters. In The Serial Killer’s Apprentice he usually has to settle for the somber and sad inclusion of only the names of victims.
Renner’s book is chilling because it reminds us that the bad guys often get away. Instead of the neat closure that we find at the end of every CSI and Monk episode, we have nothing but a pile of frustrating questions. Boxes stuffed with evidence and empty prison cells. In his 13 unlucky chapters we meet grieving friends and family desperate for closure. We are presented with enough accused that some of them must be innocent while all suffer the stigma of guilt. And we are introduced to the hardworking men and women that devote a lot of time to unraveling these mysteries with often frustrating results.
If you want the pleasure of chasing a bad guy and nabbing him, this isn’t your tale. This book is for the true-crime aficionado that understands the frustration of a cold case. It is for the amateur sleuth that wants to paw through Renner’s facts hoping to find a missed clue. It is for those of us that find the ice-cold splash of reality intellectually more refreshing than the perfect neatness of fiction. This book will color your awareness of the cases covered on news sites like DreaminDemon and give you a new-found respect for the men and women in law enforcement.
The 13 crimes are a varied bunch. You have a dead stripper that nobody cares about, a high-profile bank robber that people compared to D.B. Cooper, and everything in-between. There is a man that seemed very likely to have killed his wife, but enough doubt and missing evidence to stay a conviction. There is an apparent suicide that doesn’t seem at all apparent to Renner, the boy’s family, nor myself. There is the titular case of Robert Buell, who was put to death for raping and killing women in the early 80′s. Strangely, though, he was abducting women in their 20′s and young girls not yet in their teens. This is extremely abnormal, and the case gets twisted when we find out that Buell had a nephew living with him and that the two used to talk about grabbing women and having their way with them. And yet the nephew was never investigated…
Two of the stories feature potential D.B. Cooper suspects, the infamous thief that parachuted out of a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in cash, never to be seen again. And one mysterious suicide victim, Joseph Chandler, is most certainly NOT Joseph Chandler. To this day, nobody knows who the man was, but some have suggested that he may have been the Zodiac killer. Similar lovebird killings occurred in Ohio while “Chandler” lived there, and the name Joseph Chandler is shared with one of Jack the Ripper‘s victims, a killer that the Zodiac refered to in his letters to the police. The man’s identity is still unknown.
The case that I found the strangest was that of Attorney General Ray Gricar‘s disappearance. His car was found empty with cigarette ash in the passenger side on April 15th. No trace of him was ever found other than his laptop and hard drive (removed) in a nearby river. What drives me crazy is that on the last page of the story Renner tells us about a novel that an acquaintance of Gircar’s wrote before his death. In the novel the murder scene is an empty car. It took place on April 15th. The vital clue in the book was the presence of a bit of cigarette ash. Ray Gricar didn’t smoke.
This is a book you buy for the stories more than the storytelling. It is written with minimal flourish, as if they are long newspaper features rather than short stories. I think this style worked well for the subject matter, as Renner seems to take great pains in staying out of our way as we draw our own conclusions. Not that we will have enough answers for all of our questions, I should warn you. In fact, I had enough questions that I had to go to the author, James Renner, and see if he could clear some things up for me. Unfortunately his thoughtful and insightful answers just drive the debate deeper. Next week we will unveil our exchange with Renner and see what you guys have to say. Stay tuned.