The current popularity of true crime has raised many ethical questions about the consumption of works with the genre. Is it moral to be entertained by such horrible things? What does the public owe the victims and their families? Unsolved cases raise even more questions, because it is easy for people to get caught up in theories and encourage the worst kind of speculation with no regard to facts or feelings.
In his book, True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray (2016, Thomas Dunne Books), journalist James Renner, not only looks into this disappearance of Maura Murray, but also confronts his family’s own violent history and his relationship with the true crime genre.
After losing his job at a newspaper and questioning his future, Renner becomes obsessed with the still-unsolved disappearance of Maura Murray. Murray, a 21-year-old nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, vanished in 2004 after getting into a minor car accident 146 miles away in Woodsville, New Hampshire. She was last seen refusing help from a passing bus driver who went to his house and called the police. Even though a mere 7 minutes passed from the time that Maura spoke to the bus driver until the first police officer arrived there was no sign of her.
While she fit classic “all-American girl” archetype, during his investigation Renner discovers many cracks in the veneer of Murray’s seemingly perfect life and learns many perplexing things that lead him to question the circumstances of her disappearance. He would also experience pushback from her family members, particularly her father. This puzzled Renner, since the loved ones of missing people are usually anxious for any kind publicity to keep the case at the forefront of public interest.
Throughout the book, Renner is haunted by the fact that his grandfather sexually abused most of the women in their family. He also deals with problems involving his son and cops with his own propensity towards violence. Renner also explores other cases in his text, such as the 1989 murder of Amy Mihaljevic, the case that launched his interest in true crime. Mihaljevic’s murder and Murray’s disappearance force him to see connections between him, his grandfather, and men generally. At the time of his writing True Crime Addict, he and his wife were discussing having a second child and he thought:
“I didn’t know what I was more afraid of: that it would be another boy, or that it would be a girl brought into a world full of dangerous men.” (145)
Renner shows us that so many years of immersing himself in crime takes its toll. We can see how deeply it affects him both professionally and personally. The word “addict” in the title is apt because Renner often comes across like a junkie looking for his next fix of information about Murray and will risk anything to get it. He starts to wonder why he becomes so obsessed with this crime, and other particularly puzzling cold cases—ones that are unlikely to ever be solved. He speculates that immersing himself in the lives of others is a way of avoiding his own problems. He worries that he may be a psychopath living vicariously through other psychopaths. His thoughts may be familiar to anyone who consumes a lot of true crime.
Renner also acknowledges what strange hobby true crime is and punctuates the dark humor of this hobby. The reader is left with the impression that he if he wasn’t laughing, Renner would be crying. In one of the books funniest moments, he takes the infamous “psychopath test” and is told by the administer that his results are similar to both Ted Bundy and Donald Trump.
“‘How’d I do?’ I asked.
‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.’
That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.
‘Don’t get too upset,’ said Roberta. ‘You may have the psychopathy of a dangerous man, but so do many cops. In fact, a lot of CEOs would have scored the same as you, or worse. Donald Trump is probably a sociopath. But it’s what makes him successful.’” (13)
The book’s greatest strength is in how Renner takes the reader along for the ride in his investigation. What a ride it is. True Crime Addict defies a quick plot summary. From visiting a psychic to going to jail to taking a test to see if he’s a psychopath, we get a backseat look at being an investigative journalist and true crime junkie. He shows just how exhausting both are as he meticulously works his way through piles of information and mostly finds dead ends. Most true crime books depend on the reader already being a fan of the genre, but by telling the story this way, Renner is able to illustrate its appeal to novices.
The other strength of the text is startling empathy Renner shows for Maura Murray and other missing and dead women, and people he meets along the way. He has the uncanny ability to identify with the experience of others, be male or female, young or old—he takes on their stories. Unlike the clinical approach of most true crime books, Renner emphasizes the personal aspects of crime and victimhood. By tying his story to that of Murray’s, Renner breaks down the carapace of distance and detachment, not only between them, but between the reader and Murray. The text displays Murray as a person, instead of a victim whose tragedy is there for our entertainment.
True Crime Addict blends gonzo journalism, personal drama, and a truly baffling crime. While the book gets messy at times, in this story, it works. The disarray emphasizes the disorder in both James Renner’s and Maura Murray’s lives and gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live such a life. True Crime Addict is an important work.
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About the Writer:
Anastasia Rose Hyden (she/her) is a Florida native with a BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Saint Xavier University, a MA in Liberal Studies from Hollins University, and a MA in English from the University of North Florida. She fell in love with true crime after reading Dominick Dunne’s articles in Vanity Fair when she was a kid.