James Renner is an American journalist and author of some amazing books, including Amy – My Search for Her Killer and True Crime Addict. The latter is currently being made into a television series by Johnny Depp’s production company.
In reading your books, I always get a strong sense that you’re “one of us”, a genuine true crime aficionado. How did you become interested in this part of the world?
In 1989, a 10-year-old girl named Amy Mihaljevic was abducted from Bay Village, Ohio in broad daylight on a Friday afternoon. Amy and I were the same age and at the time, my mother lived in Rocky River, one town over from Bay. I’d see her posters all over the place and I became obsessed then with finding her. I used to ride my bike to Westgate Mall to look for her in the crowds. After her body was found, I would ride around looking for her killer. I’ve pretty much been trying to solve the case ever since.
What’s your “favorite” unsolved mystery? Why?
My favorite unsolved mystery is the Ted Conrad case, actually. Ted was a young man working at a bank in Cleveland on July 11, 1969 – the week we went to the moon. To celebrate his birthday, he bought some whiskey and brought it back to the bank in a paper bag, which he opened and showed to the guard on the way in. Then he switched the whiskey for $215,000 in cash and walked out with it in the bag at the end of his shift. Then he fled the state and has managed to remain hidden ever since. I believe I may have tracked him to a dormant volcano in Hawaii.
Why are so many people interested in the true crime genre? There was even a convention held this year called “CrimeCon”, which was a hit from what I hear. Why do we long after strangers who disappeared years, sometimes decades ago?
I think humans are hard-wired to seek solutions. When presented with an open-ended mystery it makes us feel anxious and we want to fix that by coming up with theories and possible answers. I think the recent surge in true crime has to do with a kind of existential crisis out country is having. I think we’re coming to terms with the fact that there really is no closure in this life and maybe that’s okay.
Are your friends and family generally understanding with regard to your interests, or do you find yourself having to explain your true crime projects to them?
My wife doesn’t care for unsolved mysteries and my investigation into the Maura Murray case took me away from my family for a while. I’ve promised them that I won’t lose myself in another case. They are mostly pointless adventures. There’s other things I can work on that are much more fun. I write novels, too, and they’re doing quite well.
Are you ever afraid when you go on your fact finding missions? Especially in your book “Amy – My Search for Her Killer” you come across some pretty, let’s say, “unique” people in chasing after Mihaljevic’s killer…
Not really. The men who would abduct little girls are cowards. They wouldn’t bother with a grown man. The Maura Murray case is different. There’s a lot of angry and dangerous people associated with that case and I did worry sometimes that they might show up at my house.
How do you get people to talk to you? It seems to me that in many cases, a lot of people deal with heartbreak and loss by simply refusing to discuss certain subjects.
I think most people want to share their stories. Everyone wants to be heard. The ones that don’t usually have something to hide. But the question is, does it have anything to do with the mystery or is it something else?
Do you still think about Amy Mihaljevic and Maura Murray?
Only every day.
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing a new novel, a gothic horror story set in Akron. Fun stuff.
And finally, my standard question: what are your top 3 books?
1. Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving. Fans of Maura’s case will love this story, a decades-spanning tale of accidental murder set in the North Country.
2. Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard. A great introduction to Buddhism, a guidebook to being happy again.
3. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Every sentence is perfect.