Can time travel and alternate universes help solve a young woman's murder from decades ago?

Illustration for article titled Can time travel and alternate universes help solve a young woman's murder from decades ago?

James Renner's novel The Man from Primrose Lane takes a totally unique, mind-bending approach to the crime thriller — and we've got an exclusive excerpt, showing just how the limits of crime-solving might change in the next few decades.


Here's the book's synopsis:

In West Akron, Ohio, there lived a reclusive elderly man who always wore mittens, even in July. He had no friends and no family; all over town, he was known as the Man from Primrose Lane. And on a summer day, someone murdered him.

Fast-forward four years. David Neff, the bestselling author of a true-crime book about an Ohio serial killer, is a broken man after his wife's inexplicable suicide. When an unexpected visit from an old friend introduces him to the strange mystery of "the man with a thousand mittens," David decides to investigate. What he finds draws him back into a world he thought he had left behind forever. And the closer David gets to uncovering the true identity of the Man from Primrose Lane, the more he begins to understand the dangerous power of his own obsessions and how they may be connected to the deaths of both the old hermit and his beloved wife.

Deviously plotted and full of dark wit, James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane is an audacious debut that boasts as many twists as a roller coaster. But beneath its turns, it's a spellbinding story about our obsessions: the dangerous sway they have over us and the fates of those we love.

And here's Chapter 13, in which we learn quite how weird crime-solving could get with cutting-edge physics:

In the back of the limousine, David sat quietly as I finally shared the story of my life. Which, in a way, was the story of our life.

I fell in love with Katy Keenan not long before her body was discovered lying facedown in an Ashland County wheat field. I fell in love with the girl from the missing poster. The first one. The school photo with the cloud background. The one with her in that ponytail. She had some kind of light about her. An inexplicable and unfortunate sensuality. What I'm saying is it was very difficult for any man, age five to ninety- five, not to fall a little in love with her at first sight. I was twenty. I mention this only because I believe it became her undoing.

It was not a crime of opportunity, not some random kidnapping by a guy cruising the suburbs in a dirty van. She was targeted. Katy, I learned from the newspaper accounts, had encountered the man outside Big Fun (a toy shop in the village of Coventry, about a mile from Cleveland Heights) at about three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. A classmate saw a man walk up to her, whisper something into her ear, and then lead her into a car and drive off. In broad daylight, he had walked past half a dozen other kids before he reached her. Any other day, Katy would have been with a friend or her parents. But that day, her mother had been late to pick her up. It was as if this man had stalked her, waiting for just such a moment to whisk her away.


I became obsessed with the crime.

It was the knowledge that if I had met this girl when I was a kid in school, she would have been the one I passed notes to behind Miss Kline's back. This was a girl I would have loved. A girl who could have loved me. I was sure of it.


To me, the case was a giant puzzle. The kind where, even if you get all the pieces in the right places, you still have to look through the picture to see the three- dimensional solution hidden within. I thought I was smarter than the detectives working the case. I thought I could figure it out before they did. I thought I could figure it out in enough time to save her.

On May 15, 1999, a man walking his dog along County Road 581 in Ashland County, about sixty miles from Cleveland Heights, discovered Katy's body ten feet off the road, in a harvested cornfield. She had been strangled. And raped.


As tragic as the discovery was— I couldn't sleep for two nights— it was a bit of luck for investigators. They had a crime scene. And, from the desolate location of the dump site, they could logically infer that whoever had murdered Katy had been familiar with both Cleveland Heights and Ashland County. That narrowed their search a little.

A year later, I used my notes on the case as research for my senior project at Kent State. I wrote a thirty- thousand- word paper. At the prodding of my professor, I submitted a proposal to a local publisher. The thesis became a book. Ten years later, I wrote a sequel.


The problem with Katy's murder was not lack of evidence— on the contrary, we had several clues left behind by the killer— it was the vast number of men who had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime.

There was the principal at her elementary school, a man named Burt McQuinn, who had called in sick that day. His family owned a hunting cabin not two miles from where Katy's body was found. And when authorities took a close look at his hard drives, they discovered that he'd been sending digital pictures of his penis to several girls at his school, some as young as twelve.


There was the paper man, an odd fellow named Kevin Sweeney, who delivered the Keenans' daily copy of the Plain Dealer, and who, the FBI found after some digging, had once lived in Florida under the name "John" Sweeney, but fled when he was caught sodomizing a Girl Scout behind a playground slide.

There was the well- known lawyer, a partner at Cleveland's most prestigious firm (you know the one I'm talking about). I won't name him— after all, the man is a lawyer. This particular barrister had a side hobby of flashing joggers in the Metro Parks. He was also a closeted polygamist. There were a dozen or so men like this close enough to Katy to have committed the crime, each with weak or non ex is tent alibis.


Over the span of twenty- eight years, I interviewed all of them except Kevin Sweeney, who had committed suicide before anyone could ask him questions.

After I graduated, I became a journalist, and about once a year I'd update Katy's case for what ever publication I worked for at the time. Whenever I caught a spare moment between stories, I dug some more. I could not allow this murderer to think he was smarter than me. There must be some puzzle piece yet unfound.


By 2014, I came to believe I had exhausted all conventional methods of solving this crime. I began to consider unconventional methods. In 2018, I spent a week in Tibet— ostensibly to work on a freelance piece on the effect the Dalai Lama's return had on the region, but in reality to study with a particular brother the art of transcendental meditation. But the answer was not in the spiritual realm.

Illustration for article titled Can time travel and alternate universes help solve a young woman's murder from decades ago?

And then there was a fabulous breakthrough in 2022, in the study of the properties of light, and I came really close to solving Katy's murder. A scientist at MIT had invented a method to slow down photons. Actually, she was able to not only slow down light, she found she could stop it . . . and reverse it. I took a sabbatical from the paper and, through a grant from a wealthy upper- crust Manhattan family who had reason to thank me for the revival of their patriarch's cold case— a story for another day— I was able to work alongside the scientist and her team as they developed a practical application for their discovery. After many nights, I proposed the idea for the first Light Collar, a device that has now become a standard tool for homicide detectives. If the scientists could capture light they produced in a lab, I figured they could modify their instrumentation to capture light in the field. What they built was a sort of collar, about the size of a dinner plate, which could be bolted together and taken apart. It could be wrapped around an existing beam of light. Can you see the importance of such a contraption for my obsession? Let me explain. You see, I knew Katy had been abducted in front of Big Fun in Coventry, a toy shop with big floor- to- ceiling windows out front. We rigged the collar to wrap around the light reflected off the glass. Its digital innards relayed a feed to a nearby computer, which converted the patterns of light pulled back through it as images, frames, pictures. Essentially, we were able to play back the reflections. We saw images of people and cars and bugs moving by the window up to five years in the past, back to the point when management had replaced the window. It was very promising. We tried every window in nearby shops. But the furthest back we ever saw was 2009.

I became depressed after this failure. I was no longer a young man. More than half my life had been spent chasing a killer who eluded me and, I'm sure, laughed at every article and book I wrote about the crime. I had sacrificed any real life for myself. Though I had been married three times, none of the women I brought home accepted my obsession. Each eventually became jealous of the time I devoted to Katy. I don't blame them. I know it was unhealthy. Believe me, I have tried to stop. I have.


Then I heard of a man named Tanmay Gupta, an entomologist from Case Western, who, through studying the unique chemical reactions that take place within cicadas during their seventeen- year hibernation underground, developed the first viable method of sustained human stasis. He had a simple shot that could put a person into a deep sleep indefinitely and another shot, an antidote, if you will, that woke the person back up. During the hibernation, the body's metabolism slowed down so that it only needed about fifteen thousand calories a year to survive. Gupta was funded by an eccentric entrepreneur who owned several underwater hotels and properties in the Gulf of Mexico, but whose secret love had always been outer space. Anyway, this weirdo, on live iRis, injected himself with Gupta's cocktail, immersed himself in a sealed vat of protein goop, and pointed his private shuttle toward a star thirty- five light- years away that may— and I stress may— have a planet roughly the size of earth rotating around it. If he makes a return trip, he won't be back for two hundred years. After his ship passed Pluto, most people lost interest.

When I learned of Gupta's discovery, and watched the launch on my iRis, I thought about another theory that was the big to-do of the physics world at the time. For a century, we had accepted that the universe had begun at the Big Bang and was enormous, but finite. For instance, if some matter was ejected from the epicenter of the Big Bang at near the speed of light, and we know the Big Bang was about fifteen billion years ago, the universe must be something like thirty billion light- years across, if matter is somewhat evenly dispersed. But a growing number of theoretical scientists were suggesting the physics during the first moments of creation allowed for an infinitely large universe. And, in physics, infinite is the magic word. With infinity, you get all kinds of cool things. In an infinitely large universe, where matter and energy are arranged in infinite ways, there must be worlds out there not just like our own, but mirror images of our own. Think of the old cliche, if there were an infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters, one of those monkeys would be writing the collected plays of Shakespeare. If the universe is infinite, there is an earth out there in which Katy's murder has been solved — or, even better, has not yet played out. With Gupta's discovery, it might only be a matter of finding that lost world. Unfortunately, on earth, our vision is limited by the speed of light — we only see fifteen billion light-years in any direction. In an infinite universe, chances were that the earth on which Katy's murder had not yet occurred was beyond that horizon.


Blah, blah, blah, science, science, science, right? I know. I was always a writer, not a physicist. My mind got bogged down in the details, too. But I had many years to study these theories and I was bent on finding a solution at any cost.

A few weeks after my fifty-eighth birthday, in the summer of 2036, I learned of a man named Victor Tesla. Tesla was a distant begotten decedent, or so he claimed, of Nikola Tesla, who designed some weird electromagnetic wonders around the turn of the twentieth century. Victor Tesla was a scientist and protege of a theoretical physicist named Ronald Mallett. In 2019, Mallett and his team had attempted to send a single neutron five minutes into the past. While the project was an inspiring success, the energy requirements appeared too great a hurdle for any large- scale device. Tesla had solved the problem, he claimed, in an interview with the Times. He was set to make a major announcement in the new issue of Science. As luck would have it, Tesla's lab was located in Ohio, not far from where I grew up.


It took some doing, but I convinced my editor to let me write the profile that would be appearing on the Slipstreams, Sunday, beamed to five billion iRises instantly.

The drive to Tesla's lab took me farther north than I'd traveled in many years, into that part of Ohio between Akron and Cleveland that had come to be called the Scrubber Barrens.


The roads were empty. What was once Interstate 77, a six- lane highway, had surrendered to nature. It had become a two- lane road of sparse gravel thrown atop cracked blacktop. Gargantuan Russian thistle grew like green cliffs on either side. There were no trees. They had been replaced by endless fields of more efficient Lockheed Scrubbers: man- made towers as tall and wide as redwoods with branches of triangular nanofilters that scrubbed the carbon dioxide from the air and replaced it with breathable oxygen. The government had reclaimed this land after the Fed foreclosed on Cleveland and five other failing cities in order to avoid another countrywide depression in 2019. President Boehner had likened it to amputating a limb to save the body. The state evicted the entire city. Refugees moved south, into Akron, Columbus, Marietta, disappearing into patches of clapboard slums wherever they finally landed. Demolition crews leveled houses and factories all along the east side, replacing them with fields and fields of these hauntingly mechanized trees.

Where the exit sign to Independence once stood, a dirty marker hung crooked on a single bolt. new cleveland, coming 2027, it read. But Cleveland was never coming back. Too expensive to clean up. It was a vacant wasteland now, like Detroit and Baltimore, lost to the excesses of the twentieth century, its only inhabitants vermin— animal and human. Though there was no sign advertising Tesla's lab, I turned off here, and headed due east along a winding dirt access road set between rows of scrubbers. Their nanofilters fl uttered like synchronized leaves. My car was so quiet I could hear those damned scrubbers doing their thing above me. Shooshshooshshooshshoosh. The Barrens creeped me out, to tell the truth. It was like they were telling me to be quiet. I hated driving up there. I always had the feeling these machines were aware of my presence. They were too big. They would still be standing, scrubbing up the green house gases we put there, long after we humans had finally managed to completely destroy ourselves. That seemed to make them condescending somehow.


Tesla's lab, a sprawling ware house that had once been a post office, appeared over a rise. Mounted surveillance cams captured my approach. As I neared, a gate opened and shut behind me. Two men sat on stools inside a guard house, watching some reality show on an old wall screen. I parked in the lot and strapped on my old leather satchel, which held my earwig, voice recorders, note pad (mostly for show), and a few other items I needed for this particular interview.

It occurred to me that there was a real chance I would die here.

I thought that was acceptable.

"Mr. Neff, it's a real plea sure to meet you," said Victor Tesla, taking my hand and pumping it three times. He was a harsh- looking character with ebon eyes and a jutting chin so sharp it could cut meat. He had dressed the part, with a long white lab coat.


"Pleasure's mine, Mr. Tesla," I said, meaning it.

"I can't wait to show you my egg," he said. "You're the first civilian to see my presentation. Please, come with me."


He led me through a set of double doors at the back of the marble entryway and into a gallery that reeked of ozone and roses, of sterility masked by human comfort. Tesla's assistant, a waif of a woman named Ilsa, glided behind. She wore an earwig and occasionally muttered to it as she recorded our meeting for the lab's legal team. The gallery was high- ceilinged and sparse in decor. A military- issue gunmetal- gray desk sat to one side, topped with neatly piled paperwork. A new Apple Boomerang hung suspended in the air above, relaying the day's local news feed. The center of the gallery was occupied by a pedestal that looked quite Draconian in this tech- heavy setting, a squat Doric column. Above this objet d'art rested a wide circular mount made of heavy metal with tiny displays of some sort set into its rim.

"Not quite what I expected," I said.

Tesla laughed. "The greatest inventions tend to be underwhelming, at first glance," he said.


"What do you imagine Einstein would think of Tesla's Egg?"

"He'd have a coronary," said Tesla. "Come." He ushered me to the pedestal and motioned for me to set down my satchel on a chair beside it. He cleared his throat and adjusted his coat as if preparing to pose for a picture. Perhaps he thought I did that sort of thing. "Would you care to hear a little of my history and how I came to work for Professor Mallett?"


Excerpted from THE MAN FROM PRIMROSE LANE by James Renner, to be published in March 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by James Renner. All rights reserved.


Derek C. F. Pegritz

Holy shit—that was AWESOME! That it's set in Akron, home of my best friend and DEVO, makes it that much cooler.