Several years ago, after researching his true crime book The Serial Killer’s Apprentice, James Renner was diagnosed with PTSD. It’s not uncommon for journalists to suffer such effects after witnessing trauma for a story, and Renner’s 10 years of hunting serial killers and writing about unsolved murders caught up with him. Fiction provided an unexpected safe haven, and his genre-bending time-travel thriller, The Man from Primrose Lane (2012), was a crime he could finally solve. His latest thriller, The Great Forgetting, digs at a much larger mystery, one with more questions, no generic answers and therefore plenty of room for an imaginative author to play. The result is a mix of conspiracy theorist paranoia, alternate history and cross-country adventure.
The story begins with an epilogue—our first clue that nothing is as it should be—which provides several bizarre nuggets of information: Fourteen years after 9/11, the coroner who oversaw and organized the remains of Flight 93 returns to the crash site, where he finds a severed monkey’s paw, clasping a man’s watch that reads, “RIP, Tony Sanders. 1978 to 2012.” And on the monkey’s palm is tattooed a bright red swastika.
In 2015, Jack Felter has returned home to Franklin Mills, Ohio, to help care for his father, who suffers from dementia. Franklin Mills is a place Jack would like to forget—especially his former love interest Sam, who immediately enlists Jack’s help in finding her husband (once Jack’s best friend), Tony Sanders, who has been missing for three years. Tony’s trail leads Jack to an institutionalized teen named Cole, who promises to reveal Tony’s whereabouts if Jack listens to Cole’s story—and begins boiling his water to counteract the pacifying effects of Fluoride. Jack soon learns about the Great Forgetting, a vast conspiracy that conceals the true events of World War II, contradicting everything he knows about history, science, the government and even time itself.
The Great Forgetting explores humanity’s desperation to forget the worst things that happen to us and the worst things we do to each other. It never loses speed as it reveals large-scale histrionics and builds to a zealous reveal. However, in Renner’s attempt to exorcise our prejudices and transform history, he risks alienating his audience, as many readers may find themselves defensive of their living memory, holding tighter to their real history. Perhaps some things can’t be rewritten, even for fiction’s sake.