Imagine a young woman driving north, headed for New England’s White Mountains, a troubled personal life in Amherst, Massachusetts, in her rearview mirror. Mainly, it’s small tragedies that preoccupy her: a breakup, some minor credit-card-fraud charges, a dent in her dad’s car. Many people hit a breaking point in their lives. Maura Murray’s came on February 9, 2004. She was twenty-one years old.
Murray probably took I-91 north that day, having packed up her dorm room at the University of Massachusetts and printed out directions from MapQuest. She didn’t tell anyone her plans. Around 7:45 P.M., she fell off the map. Forty-five minutes earlier, she had driven her car into a snowbank along a smaller highway near Haverhill, New Hampshire, not far from the mountains. A neighbor saw the car there, and a person pacing outside it, and called 911. A school-bus driver stopped and talked to Murray, just for a moment. She begged him not to call the police; AAA was coming, she said. She was in sufficient distress that the man called the police anyway when he got home.
The cops arrived at the scene soon afterward. The car was still there, but Murray was gone. There were no footprints leading away from the scene that could have helped them follow her, wherever she had gone. The area was lightly populated, and the neighbors hadn’t seen her leave. A box of wine had spilled all over the interior of the car. Murray’s belongings were still in there, too, except for her wallet. No one ever heard from Murray again.
If you are, like me, an insomniac prone to reading Wikipedia’s crime section at night—and I have found this to be a fellowship with a wide subscription—you have probably come across Murray’s story before. It is not a particularly famous case in the annals of American crime: it never generated a national media frenzy or fixed Murray in Americans’ minds the way that, say, JonBenét Ramsey was. Still, Murray was young, white, and attractive, attributes that tend to drive a lot of interest in missing-person cases. And there is something haunting about the way she vanished—how, just as she seemed to want to check out of her life, it actually happened. It’s Gone Girl before “Gone Girl,” the sort of narrative hook that can suck a reader into a novel. In the chaos of the real world, the people who got drawn into Murray’s story, other than her horrified and grief-stricken friends and family members, were a bunch of strangers on the Internet.
The dizzying pull of a real-life mystery is nothing new. Nineteenth-century newspapers trafficked in amazingly detailed accounts of murders and careful reporting of trials that invited readers to parse the evidence themselves. Pulp magazines like True Detective later sprung up to take their place. A lot of American fantasies are built around a life spent solving crime. When Truman Capote went with Harper Lee to Kansas to report “In Cold Blood,” he was simply doing what many others had dreamed of. The frenzy, in 2014, surrounding “Serial,” a podcast that investigated an old murder case in Baltimore, was built on the same cultural foundation. And, ever since its wild success, it seems as though we’ve had one true-crime craze after another packaged and sold to us, with networks and producers itching to find the next Adnan Syed, from “Serial,” or Steven Avery, the subject of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer.”
So it is not surprising that an early review of James Renner’s “True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray” would call the book “an entrancing, brilliant next step for fans of the podcast Serial, Netflix’s Making a Murderer, and other true crime cases.” Published last month by Thomas Dunne Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, “True Crime Addict” is a strange beast—one that embodies every problem that arises when online obsessives are infected with delusions of detective grandeur.
The book follows Renner as he tries, over a number of years, not simply to report on but to actually solve, personally, Maura Murray’s disappearance. Renner, who was reporter for an alternative weekly in Cleveland until he was fired, in 2009, has no particular connection to the case other than an apparent obsessive streak that previously was laser-focussed on the disappearance of a ten-year-old girl named Amy Mihaljevic. In the book, Renner writes, without any evident self-awareness, that he fell “in love with Amy Mihaljevic when I saw her MISSING poster hanging on a utility pole when I was eleven years old.” He wrote a book about her before he fastened onto Murray.
Like most of us, Renner encountered Murray’s case many years after her disappearance, on the Internet. Unlike most of us, he promptly set up a blog and started publishing his “findings” there. He did some shoe-leather reporting, going out to the crash site and visiting witnesses’ houses. Almost everyone slammed the door on him or else granted only limited interviews. The people who did not block his way, who wholeheartedly embraced his methods of pursuing the case, were other people on the Internet: the commenters on his blog and the people who e-mailed him tips—rarely anonymously, but never with any real connection to Murray. And, perhaps because those were the people who accepted him, Renner embraced them in return. He posted every rumor sent his way, no matter how scurrilous or unhelpful.
About halfway through the book, Renner delivers a kind of soliloquy about his journalistic methods:
I’ve come to believe that there’s only one way to establish credibility with readers, and that is to show them how you’re making the sausage. I think reporters should open up their research to all those interested and bring them along for the ride. That means scanning and posting the supporting documents you use to gather your facts. But I think it should go further. What I’d like to see is an open-sourced form of reporting, where journalists put notes and documents and pictures and sources in something like a readable Google doc as they are reporting.
This, I think most crime reporters would say, is madness. Crimes—particularly cold cases like Maura Murray’s—are often difficult to untangle, susceptible to any number of theories, which necessarily shift and evolve as journalists interview relevant parties and gather documents. People remember things wrong; sightings turn out to be ghost stories. Frequently, people are wrongly implicated along the way. This is important but dangerous territory for a journalist, because, as the reporter Pamela Colloff once told me, “the evidence you uncover, and the way you frame the story, can have tremendous influence on the case itself.”
It’s not only the misdirection of law enforcement that one worries about. The line between investigative crime journalism and harassment can become blurry and difficult to manage. Reporters ask people to talk about personal trauma, and often, unsurprisingly, they don’t want to. They can only push so far, ask so many times. Convincing people to speak is gentle, delicate work.
Renner is neither gentle nor delicate, and he tends to think that an unwillingness to talk to him is a reason to classify someone as suspicious. “Until Fred Murray, I had never heard of a parent of a missing person who turned down the chance for national exposure,” Renner writes, which is an absurd claim—victims’ families often stay away from the press. Fred had seen Maura very shortly before she disappeared, and he may have been a confidante of his daughter’s. But he had no interest in Renner; through an intermediary, he said he didn’t want a book written at all. For that reluctance, Fred is portrayed as someone who must be hiding from the press, and therefore who must know something. Renner describes driving out to Fred’s address and finding the house boarded up. “The disordered mess disturbed me,” he writes. “It didn’t jibe with the overly controlling image Fred Murray portrayed in public.”
I asked Murray’s parents if they wished to comment for this story; they declined. But in 2014, when a reporter from Boston magazine wrote about the case—and Renner’s small army of Internet sleuths—Fred said, of Renner, “What I think he’s trying to do is create characters for a screenplay.” After reading Renner’s book, I think that Fred is on to something. In the screenplay based on “True Crime Addict,” Renner would inevitably be the hero, the one who fought through everyone else’s apathy and bad intentions. Much of the book is concerned with Renner’s personal life; at one point, he relates that his psychologist told him that, on an exam, he got results “similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.” These passages about Renner’s temperament make for uncomfortable, even claustrophobic reading—and, like the rest of the book, come off as an unintentional indictment of the writer.
Cold cases have long attracted hangers-on like Renner, who work for years on “solving” the crime but never do. In cases that broke before the advent of Internet sleuthing, they often called themselves “private investigators,” which represented a shockingly diverse category. Now many of these people gather on the Internet, posting on sites like Renner’s. The result is a complicated morass of uncontrolled speculation. It certainly isn’t justice, not for Murray or for her family. I’m frankly surprised that a major publishing house decided to release Renner’s book.
After all, crime “addicts” such as James Renner rarely, if ever, solve crimes. They are drawn to the most dramatic possibilities and ignore more tedious solutions. For all that Renner has written on Maura Murray’s case, both in his book and online, I’ve never seen him seriously investigate the most plausible theory: that, fearing a D.U.I. arrest, Murray walked away from her car in the New Hampshire cold, got lost, and died. The woods are thick up there. A body could disappear.