True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray by James Renner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I received a free copy from the publisher for review.
A reporter who had been fired for his refusal to kill a story about a politician’s sex scandal goes into a strip club and during a lap dance he strikes up a conversation that helps reignite his passion for writing true crime stories. So he decides to look into the disappearance of a college student that sends him down a self-destructive path as he copes with some ugly family history as well as fears about his own nature.
This sounds like the setup for a pretty good fiction thriller with a flawed protagonist becoming obsessed with a mystery to avoid dealing with his own problems, but it’s one of those cases where the facts are probably stranger than any fiction a crime writer could dream up.
On February 9, 2004, nursing student Maura Murray vanished under puzzling circumstances after suddenly leaving the University of Massachusetts Amherst and driving over two hours north. She was last seen after a minor car accident on a rural road but refused help from a passing school bus driver who went to his nearby home and called the police. Even though only minutes passed from the time that Maura spoke to the bus driver until the police arrived there was no sign of her when the first officer arrived.
In 2009 James Renner had just settled a lawsuit related to his wrongful termination as a newspaper reporter when he decided to dig into the disappearance of Maura. He’d find the family surprisingly uncooperative because usually the loved ones of missing people are anxious for publicity to keep the case in the public mind. With limited information and a belief that journalism today requires total transparency Renner decided to take an open approach to his research of posting information and updates on a blog, and this attracted a group of internet armchair detectives anxious to help who would provide information and tips related to the case. It also took a dark turn when someone began posting creepy YouTube clips that seem to be hinting towards knowledge of what happened to Maura as well as eventually making Renner’s family the subject of unsettling videos as well.
This is one of those books that I find myself of two minds about. As a non-fiction tale of a writer getting unhealthily obsessed with a missing woman as a way of coping with and/or avoiding his own issues it’s an extremely interesting page turner. It’s also got an intriguing mystery at the heart of it because the more Renner digs into Maura Murray’s life the more evident it becomes that this was a young woman with problems, and there’s a lot of things to question and speculate about including the odd behavior of her father and her history of petty crime.
However, I always find myself extremely wary when the public gets interested in unsolved cases. It’s really easy for cable news, schlock documentaries, and click-bait websites to exploit these. Even when a story is done well with a painstakingly researched and unbiased look at a case like the Serial podcast’s first season it makes me uneasy because it seems to inspire the interwebs to unleash the worst kind of speculative nonsense without regard to facts or the realization that most crime is depressingly mundane and that it’s almost never the result of a flashy serial killer or a conspiracy of some kind.
(I’m not immune to this either. I spent more time than I like to admit poring over the cell phone logs and tower maps posted on the Serial website coming up with my own theory. So I totally understand the allure of a true crime mystery. I just don’t trust the average interwebs user’s ability to solve one. That includes me.)
People are prone to indulging our inherent biases when we try to figure out what happened during some unexplained event, and we are remarkably stubborn about not letting facts get in the way of what we want to believe. We also like to turn anything unexplained into a larger story that follows our own internal sense of logic and will incorporate any random scrap of knowledge that seems to support a pet theory. All of these things tend to combine to turn any case that catches the public eye into a clusterfuck of any wild theories the human mind can concoct, and it seems like the result is often a murky swamp of rumors, half-truths, misunderstandings, and outright lies that make it nigh on impossible to separate fact from fiction. If you send a bunch of hounds into the woods baying after a fox it’s impossible to track the fox later because its paw prints will have been obliterated by the dogs.
I’m not saying that Renner exploited Maura’s disappearance or was irresponsible in his reporting here. He’s got a variety of reasons for becoming obsessed with the case, and as he points out he probably would have made more money by simply writing another novel. For the most part he does do what seems to be a reliable job of research, discounting crackpot notions, and sticking to the facts. However, he also isn’t above thinking that coincidences are the universe's way of telling you something, visiting a psychic, tossing in the idea that the universe as we know it is really just a computer simulation, and describing a couple of weird incidents that make his son sound like a character in a Stephen King novel.
At the end of the day Renner has got his own theory about what happened to Maura. His idea isn’t outlandish and there is evidence to support it, but I do question if he didn’t fall into the rabbit hole of looking for a reason Maura disappeared when the answer might be a lot more meaningless and random than what he believes. I suspect that if ever do learn of Maura’s fate that the answer will turn out to be surprisingly simple.
While this digging into an on-going mystery hit on some personal pet peeves of mine with the true crime genre, I still found Renner’s story and writing compelling overall. He also seems like a decent guy who was struggling with a lot, and the book made me hope that things got better for him after he wrote it Maura Murray’s story almost certainly doesn’t have a happy ending, but there’s still hope for James Renner.
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