First novels by new authors are like surprise packages that come in the mail: you don’t know what you’ll find inside, not really, even if there was advance hype. Sometimes you find something so unappealing you wonder that anyone could have thought it was for you. Other times you get a teenaged sociopath who’s fighting hard not to become a serial killer despite his deep-seated wish to create dead bodies, and then you know you’ve got Dan Wells’s I Am Not A Serial Killer.
This funny, sad, scary novel stars John Wayne Cleaver, who notes himself that his name seems to be made for a serial killer: John Wayne, the first two names of John Wayne Gacy, who raped and killed at least 33 young men and boys in Chicago during the 1970s, and cleaver, a potential murder weapon. Never mind that he was actually named for a western movie star; this feels like fate to John. Especially since his father is named Sam, making him the Son of Sam. That he lives over a mortuary and has been helping embalm bodies since he was seven is just the icing on the cake.
John has all sorts of rules to keep himself from killing people. He has a best friend he pretty much hates, and he forces himself to pay compliments to people who anger him. There’s a monster he keeps behind a closed door in his mind, and he intends to never let him out. The occasional school paper on Jeffrey Dahmer is just to intrigue teachers and let off a little steam. It helps that he has a good therapist, even if his diagnosis is antisocial personality disorder.
All is going fairly well until an actual, practicing serial killer comes to Clayton County and people start dying in an especially gruesome manner. John finds out who the perpetrator is, and begins looking for ways to stop him, using all his own serial killer skills to do it. It makes things a lot more difficult for John to keep his monster caged, because it requires John to break quite a number of his rules. But his obsessive knowledge of serial killers and their backgrounds and methods gives him the perfect tools to catch a killer no one else would suspect.
This book reminded me a fair bit of the DEXTER novels by Jeff Lindsay in the way they speak of the killing part of a serial killer as a separate entity with which the protagonist shares brain space. But the similarity ends there. John is a troubled teen who truly does show all the signs of a serial killer, including the MacDonald triad, three traits shared by ninety-five percent of serial killers: bed-wetting, pyromania and animal cruelty. Wells writes some excruciatingly familiar scenes to anyone who has ever been a teenager that are even more excruciating because of John’s, um, disability: talking to a girl at a school dance, dealing with the school bully, helping out an elderly neighbor. He has a real flair for his material, both the killing part and the typical teenage part. All of it is written in clear, straightforward, first-person prose. The reader cannot turn the pages fast enough.
Surprisingly, Wells brings the supernatural into his story. I am not sure why he made this decision, and have been trying to decide whether it is a flaw. I’ve been uncertain ever since reading the book whether the notion of the supernatural was a means by which John dealt with the serial killer (i.e., it was easier to think of him as a demon, not human, and therefore someone it was okay to hunt and kill; it was part of John’s psychosis to make him an “other” in his mind) or whether the killer really was a demon (John’s mother witnesses events that seem to confirm the killer’s demonic nature). Most murder mysteries can be forgotten within moments of reading the last paragraph. This one sticks with you.
One note: this book seems to be aimed at a teenage market. I think it’s probably fine for those who are about fifteen and up, but it’s not something I’d give to a precocious 10-year-old who is reading at a young adult level. It’s a little too intensely violent – which is probably why older teens will love it.
If you like this book, there’s more of John Wayne Cleaver in Mr. Monster and I Don’t Want to Kill You. I’m looking forward to getting to these two books after the fun of Dan Wells’s first outing. Perhaps they will explain more about John’s world, in which the supernatural coexists with the natural; or about John’s psychosis, which turns normal people into demons so that John can deal with them. Either way, I’m eager to see what comes next.
John Cleaver — (2009- ) Publisher: John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. Obsessed with serial killers, he never wants to be one. Yet terrible impulses constantly tempt him. Having grown up helping his mom at the family mortuary, dead bodies are no big deal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t ask for the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the clarity to recognize that something is frighteningly different about the freshest body on the slab. For the first time, John must confront a danger outside his own mind, a threat he cannot control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could. Dan Wells’s debut will keep you awake and then haunt your dreams.