The Man from Primrose Lane: Farrar Straus & Giroux hardcover, March 2012, 365 pages, cover photo by Michael Lewis. James Renner is a first-time novelist, but has written two non-ficton books involving crime reporting, Amy: My Search for Her Killers and The Serial Killer's Apprentice. His previous genre foray was a 2004 short film he directed based on Stephen King's excellent story "All That You Loved Will Be Carried Away." (I went onto YouTube to watch it, only to discover that the one on YouTube is a different 2004 short film based on "All That You Loved Will Be Carried Away.")
The Man from Primrose Lane starts out as a mystery, about a crime writer investigating the murder of the eponymous character, an odd recluse who wore a different pair of mittens every day, no matter the weather. The book has various autobiographical elements: the protagonist David Neff is a crime writer who went to Kent State as James Renner did, and the title of his last novel, The Serial Killer's Protégé, is suspiciously close to Renner's. I believe and hope the similarities end there, as David Neff is a single father, still reeling from his wife's suicide. In the opening 25 pages, his editor tries to draw him out of his funk by interesting him in the case of the murder of the strange man from Primrose Lane. This has been promoted as a cross-genre book, but there have not yet been any fantastic elements through 25 pages.
Blood Ocean: Abaddon trade paperback, February 2012, 286 pages, cover art by Luke Preece. Weston Ochse is a former Army intelligence officer, who won the Stoker Award for best first novel for Scarecrow Gods in 2005, and has twice more been nominated for his short fiction. He has published by my count seven novels, another seven novellas or chapbooks, and three collections of short fiction——most recently Multiplex Fandango, with introduction by Joe R. Lansdale. (Some of his books were published in limited editions and will take some effort to find.) Ochse is married to author Yvonne Navarro.
Blood Ocean is part of Abaddon Books' Afterblight Chronicles shared universe, set in a future world devastated by plague, where petty tyrants vie for power over the survivors. Blood Ocean is set among a floating community of survivors, who created a makeshift city by tying together their ships and boats. In the first 25 pages, we meet our protagonist Kavika Kamalani, one of the Hawaiian descendants on the floating city. Kavika is a prospective member of the Pali Boys, a group of men who seek out danger, based on their philosophy to "live large." The leader of the Pali Boys assigns Kavika the job of solving the murder of another Pali Boy, who was "blood raped," killed to harvest his blood.
The Battle: Both these books have solid openings, and I'm enjoying them both.
Although I've been promised genre elements, the opening chapters of The Man from Primrose Lane are straight mystery. I said in our last battle that a mystery novel has to give me something more than the whodunit to hold my interest. Renner meets that challenge with some nicely quirky aspects to the story, starting with the oddball victim with the ever-changing mittens, and with very engaging characterization, which makes me want to keep reading even if I don't much care who committed the crime.
The first thing to say about Blood Ocean is that, even though there are at least ten prior books in the Afterblight Chronicles, this does not read like the umpteenth entry in a shared world series. Ochse has made this future his own by taking the tale out onto the water. The setting may put you in mind of Snow Crash or the film Water World, but there is no "formula" feel to the story. I am interested in the politics of this floating city, and in the culture of the Pali Boys. There are also some nice touches, such as a literal rendering of the phrase "monkey on your back."
It's hard to guess which of these books I would enjoy more if I read them both all the way through. But my decision comes down to two small distinctions. First, the opening chapters beg for comparison——both books open by introducing the central mystery of an unusual murder in which the victim bleeds to death, through the viewpoint of a character who is not the book's protagonist——and I preferred the set-up in Renner's novel. The first chapter of Blood Ocean shows the Pali Boy who is going to be the victim, but we don't get much sense of his personality. The most interesting thing we learn about him is that he's a Pali Boy, one of a group of Hawaiians who revel in dangerous stunts, especially swinging through the air on the ropes and cables of the ships comprising the floating city. But this chapter all takes place on the deck of a couple of the ships. This seems to me a wasted opportunity to start the story more memorably and exuberantly, in the air over the floating city.
The prologue of The Man from Primrose Lane is through the point of view of Sackett, a policeman who has known the victim since childhood and who discovers the body. We never see the victim alive onstage and we get not one word of description of Sackett, and yet Renner drops enough tidbits to give us a sense of their personalities. For example, we learn that as a boy, Sackett kept a log of all the different mittens he saw the man from Primrose Lane wearing, which tells us something interesting about both characters. When Sackett arrives at the victim's house, he tells the delivery boy who called the police to wait outside. He then finds the body at the end of a trail of blood, a trail that began at the kitchen blender, which contains the victim's fingers. The delivery boy sees the scene and vomits, to which Sackett dryly responds:
"Feel better?" he asked.The second distinction is that Renner's novel strikes me as a bit more ambitious. Renner starts with an interesting mystery and a terribly traumatized character, and hints that the mystery and the protagonist will tie together in strange and intriguing ways. I think there is a higher ceiling to this book than Blood Ocean, in part simply because post-apocalyptic stories have been done pretty thoroughly in recent years. Even though Ochse has added some nice twists, I suspect Blood Ocean is less likely to develop into a contender to win this bracket of the Battle of the Books than The Man from Primrose Lane. Still, I am looking forward to reading more from Weston Ochse, perhaps starting with the audiobook of last year's Velvet Dogma.
"Next time someone tells you to wait outside, you think you might listen?"
THE WINNER: THE MAN FROM PRIMROSE LANE by James Renner
The Man from Primrose Lane moves into the second round, where it will take on either Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed or Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt.
To see the whole bracket, click here.