I was so excited to read this. I’m also a true crime addict, and it’s a weird thing to be. You can’t really mention it at parties or anything. Luckily we’re in an uptick of true crime, in different mediums, thanks to popular installments like the Serial podcast and The Jinx miniseries. I’ve been fascinated by the genre since the days of Unsolved Mysteries, which as a kid I thought was simultaneously the scariest thing on earth and a television masterpiece. Just the sound of the theme music and the sight of Robert Stack in a beige trench coat, emerging from the dark in front of an inexplicable rolling mist background, intoning in his unmistakable voice about a mysterious missing person…or chupacabras, I remember that episode especially terrifying me…was enough to get me excited. Preemptively scared, but excited.
I knew who Maura Murray thanks to Disappeared, a modern-day answer to Unsolved Mysteries. It’s a missing persons show, most of whose subjects remain unfound and heavily comprise the young, attractive, white female demographic. Nancy Grace-type material. But Murray’s story has lots of bizarre twists and turns, more so than others perhaps, including why the UMass student was even in New Hampshire when she vanished near the White Mountains in 2004, strange details about how her wrecked car was found and its contents, no footprints in the surrounding snow, issues in college and relationships, her penchant for getting into car accidents, her other penchant for light identity theft/credit card fraud. She’d packed up her dorm, dispensed of some belongings, done a little research into driving maps and lodging and taken off. Renner goes a little more in detail about why she wasn’t quite as squeaky clean as depicted in the media, and it’s easy to see why this case was so uncomfortably fascinating. But emphasis on the uncomfortable – there’s an uneasy level of sordid voyeurism into some of her activities.
Despite my excitement and a long period of anticipation, this is a difficult title to review. I think the problem is that I really liked reading it, even if I didn’t completely agree with some methodology, didn’t like all of the way-too-personal additions on his part, and I was a little disappointed that the book constantly shifted between Maura’s story and his hands-on investigation of it after armchair and web sleuthing. I get that a lot of that was interconnected, and that there were elements of his personality and certainly of his family history that made him pursue this missing persons case so intently, and he has such a good sense of humor and writing style that I didn’t mind the insights into his life but, at the same time, it was too much.
And left me with questions. He seems to have a very understanding, supportive relationship with his wife, and that also includes her being cool with him getting a lap dance and a stripper pushing her boobs in his face? Ok. Everybody’s relationship is different, and that’s fine, obviously, BUT I do have a point with this – he never explains anything about his own – no other indication that it’s problematic or non-traditional, but he feels he can judge with full authority the relationship between family members and friends of the Murray family. It’s fine to say that in the majority of missing persons cases, the family behaves one way and these people didn’t, but he hammers at it with a judgmental undertone. I can say for sure that my family wouldn’t participate in a gonzo journalism-style (his description) book if I disappeared, and that’s because every family’s different (Tolstoy or something). But then don’t present your own eyebrow-raising personal business and be surprised or annoyed at someone else not fitting a mold you believe they should. See what I mean? I also didn’t care about his arrest or pot smoking or things like that. Parts about his son and family history were deeply interesting and relevant; the rest, not so much.
That was a lot of words to explain something that should be simple. But it bothered me, it’s my opinion, and I had to get it out. Also bothering me was that he gave a lot of credence to internet rumors. I know he blogs prolifically on Murray’s case, and did throughout the book’s writing, explaining that he thinks journalistic sources should be openly accessible. Which, cool idea. And forum communities like Websleuths and Reddit have proven helpful and successful in piecing together key elements or rounding up evidence and clues in other cases. But it’s also the internet, so: grain of salt. He even includes an anecdote of a guy writing him with one detailed story in response to confrontation about his connection to Maura’s shopping rewards card, then later recants said story with another one that seems more likely to be the truth. But he lied because he was nervous about something he’d done in his own online snooping. I felt like some necessary skepticism was lacking.
I’m complaining a lot, but: I really did like this book. It’s compulsively readable and always compelling. Even the above example was interesting, because this case just made strangers go crazy for some reason, in terms of wanting to be involved or to find that missing piece that would crack things open. It remains frustratingly unsolved, but I appreciated the abundance of theories Renner posited. Sure, not all of them are as likely or are supported by mountains of evidence, but it gives a lot to think about. That’s what true crime readers love – an intriguing mystery with many ponderable angles, and what everyone deserves from a social perspective – options to consider, theories to puzzle out until one day something clicks or shifts into the right place. As long as her family remains without an answer, I think it’s a great service to examine any possible path, even if some are dead ends or the family themselves block access to explore others. Once something like this catches public attention, we’re always going to wonder, so better to explore what evidence there is in hopes of eventually sifting out the truth.
True Crime Addict:
How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray
by James Renner
published May 24, 2016 by Thomas Dunne Books