I heard quite a bit of hype for Dan Wells’s book I Am Not a Serial Killer before I got my hands on it. John Scalzi featured Dan in the Big Idea on his blog, and the interview was extremely interesting. (I’ll do a post one day on how much I love “evil” protagonists.)
I liked I Am Not a Serial Killer. It wasn’t a perfect book but it was engaging and creepy while still managing to be sweet. Creepy and sweet at once is not an easy thing to do; sympathetic protagonists who want to cut people open and look at their insides are even harder. John Wayne Cleaver is highly intelligent, aware of himself, and willing to make sure that he stays on the “good” side of the fence even though he’s not emotionally aware of what good and bad are. He observes and understands what the world tells him he should and shouldn’t do (to other people, or small animals, or his neighbors). That struggle—between his hunger to cause hurt and his intellectual understanding that he should not want to cause hurt—is the best part of the book and the most intriguing part of his character. He’s also fifteen years old, which allows for some fascinating personal development.
John’s narrative voice is real and personal in a way that hooks directly into the interest-centers in my brain. That clear, distinct voice is what makes this book so worth reading.
The tone of the book is somewhere between YA and not. It’s not being marketed in the US as young adult, but John’s family/school/social lives are constrained by his age into sometimes typical (though always with a twist) teenage things. (The fact that this is because his mother is trying to force him to develop a “normal” personality adds an uncomfortable dimension to those interactions.) I’ve heard this book compared to the Dexter series but I’m not sure I agree. Jeff Lindsay’s books are arguably just as much a sort of “urban fantasy” in some ways as Dan Wells’s novel. The difference is that in Dexter, the push of the literal Dark Passenger (a mythological, religious sort of thing, as the later books discuss it) removes a great deal of agency from serial killers and makes them into almost possessed humans. It’s not that it isn’t an interesting plot device, but I find Dan Wells’s use of the supernatural to be something I can get much more on-board with. Most serial killers, or potential ones if we include John, are just average humans. It’s only luck that the one John runs into isn’t.
Which brings me to my one frustrated nitpick over the construction of the narrative. There are a couple of lines in the early part of the book (which is written mostly in an active way, not reflective) that comment back as if from a future date. “This was the work of the demon, of course, though we still didn’t know that at the time. How could we?” John says at one point. This was so unbelievably jarring it knocked me right out of the book for a minute. The only times John is reflecting back are the sentences that wave around the word “demon.” I suppose it’s to let us know that there’s a supernatural creature in the book, but I felt like it deflated the mystery. It didn’t allow a mystery to actually develop, to be honest—once he examines the first body, he starts telling us about later finding out it was the demon. If those lines hadn’t been included, and the reader had been forced to follow the mystery along with John, the revelation of the demon during the murder on the lake would have been much stronger. We would have wondered why the disjointed kill sites, why the sludge, but instead it’s simply dropped in our laps. There’s no tension because there’s suddenly no mystery.
But, the scene on the lake is in the fifth chapter, and from there on the game of cat-and-mouse John plays is like a reader-magnet. I couldn’t put it down. (I did actually read this in one sitting; it was gripping.) Once he begins collapsing his walls and rules to hunt the demon, I found his “relationship” to Brooke riveting. I’m not sure about her character yet—she seems at the very least to suffer from bad judgment—but she’s the only person other than his therapist who seems to be able to see John as another human and not a potential monster. Therapy in the book is something that surprised and pleased me. John actually talks to his therapist honestly about what he’s going through and how he wants to keep himself in check. In return his therapist treats him like a real person and not a freak. They have an open dialogue that adds a sympathetic dimension to John’s character because it allows the reader to see how much he fears what he might become. Though we are “in his head” thanks to the narration, it’s not quite the same as listening to how he views himself and his “rules” when he’s talking to someone else. I appreciated that insight.
Watching John break himself down and fight so very hard against his hungers is intense. Wells makes up for the earlier narrative slip a hundred times over by the end of the novel. The solution is appropriately Cleaver-ish and not something a “normal” person would likely have done.
I’d give I am Not a Serial Killer an A-, because I truly had fun reading it and thought the characters were a blast even though there were minor mistakes. I’m definitely looking forward to the second book, Mr. Monster.