John Wayne Cleaver is an intelligent, bed-wetting fifteen year-old boy with a deep, dark secret – he wants to kill you. He wants to kill everyone, but he doesn’t. John enforces rules and restrictions to keep himself from following through on those impulses. Disconnected, cold and lacking empathy, John still knows the difference between right and wrong, and wants very desperately to be “good.” That dilemma – between his desire to inflict hurt and his intellectual understanding that wanting to cause hurt is wrong – was the most fascinating part of the book for me.
When John feels the desire to murder someone, his rules dictate that he should complement them instead. “I heard you did well on the algebra test. Congratulations!” Or “I really like your shirt.” He says this with a friendly smile but inside, he is seething; barely containing the need to slice you open and play with your guts.
I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells is a compelling Urban Fantasy novel that almost succeeds in drawing the reader into being sympathetic to the story’s main character. Told in first-person, past tense, the protagonist’s young voice narrates the story authentically, navigating the pitfalls of his psychopathic thoughts and the homicidal temptations of his daily teenage life – as if being a teenage boy wasn’t angst ridden enough. As if.
When older men in town start dying in gruesome ways and John realizes someone like him is on a murderous binge and won’t stop unless he does something about it. When it turns out to be the work of an unworldly monster, the rollercoaster has topped the big hill and the ride really begins.
Now, the book reads a little like a Young-Adult version of the Showtime series, Dexter. The story itself is linear and easy to follow, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have twists to keep the reader involved. Even though it might read a bit like a YA novel, this is not for teenagers or younger.
Wells keeps the language clean and simple. His prose is straight-forward and the story moves efficiently. The murders are gory, but don’t languish in the bloody details (I’ve been told that changes in the 2nd book of the series, Mr. Monster). The really disturbing thing is the horrible thoughts and yearnings of the protagonist, and it’s unsettling to say the least when he hugs his flawed but loving mother and contemplates breaking her neck. This kind of inner dialogue occurs throughout the book, and it keeps the reader from dropping their guard and just “liking” John.
In the 2nd act, things escalate and I can’t recall a moment when I was reading where I thought it had bogged down. The finale is over-the-top and fantastical, but still an enjoyable read. I honestly would have liked it more if it hadn’t taken a turn towards horror and instead stayed rooted in reality.
Do you want to read this book? Yes… if you can manage the dark subject matter and don’t mind the uncomplicated story about a sociopath boy hunting a monster. Personally, I enjoyed it and I really like your shirt, too.
Dan Wells has three books in the series, and I am not a Serial Killer is the first. It scores a well-deserved 4/5 stars in reader reviews. Wells is also a regular on the weekly podcast, Writing Excuses.