I Don’t Want to Kill You is the final book in Dan Wells’s JOHN CLEAVER trilogy. It’s a powerful conclusion, sad, brutal, humorous and loving all at the same time. Wells has done a fine job of writing three books that can stand each stand on their own, but which together make a powerful coming-of-age story.
John Cleaver is 16 or 17, and in some ways a typical teenager; he eats huge bowls of cereal, goes to high school, argues with his mother. But John is a sociopath, and he wants very much to be a serial killer. It’s an urge he fights as hard as he can, and so far, at least, he’s not killed anyone human. But he has killed a few demons. At the end of the second book in the trilogy, Mr. Monster (reviewed here), John challenged a demon he called Nobody to come to town and take him on. Nobody seems to have been pulling the strings of the first two demons John killed, and he wants to go to the source and end things once and for all.
When the pastor of a local Presbyterian church is found dead, John believes that the demon he is searching for is responsible. The method of the killings is identical to that of numerous murders committed by the Handyman, as the press has named him. John can’t believe that the Handyman, who previously had always worked in Georgia, would have come to Clayton County, North Dakota, unless he were Nobody, the demon he seeks. John sets out to profile the demon, catch it and kill it.
In the meantime, though, John still has to start his junior year of high school. To his surprise, he also discovers that Marci, a hugely popular and beautiful classmate, is interested in him. The two spend time hiking and biking before the school year starts, and once the Handyman shows up, a fair bit of time talking about the killer. Marci is perhaps more willing to put up with this sort of talk than the average teenage girl might be because her father is a police officer; her father leaks information to the two teens every now and then, and John has an additional source of information in that his family’s business is running a mortuary, so he gets to study the bodies.
Wells maintains a delicate balance in writing about John. He’s not a typical teenage boy, and he doesn’t act like one. But John’s rules for himself — the rules that keep him from killing — also make him a more honorable teenager than most. For instance, John doesn’t stare at Marci’s chest the way most of the boys do, and that makes him especially appealing to her. He’s also even denser than most teenage boys; he doesn’t think to ask Marci to the homecoming dance, and she has to basically pry an invitation out of him. And then, of course, there’s his crime fighting, or his demon fighting. He is so focused on prying Nobody out of hiding that he does some ugly things as well as some noble things.
I don’t want to say much more about this book; you’ll want to find out the rest for yourself. Wells has created a fascinating character in John, and does a fine job of filling out the characters of other important figures in the book as well. The prose is clear and strong, with little ornamentation. The plot unfolds at an impressive speed. Make sure you have the time to read steadily once you start; I stayed up until after 1:00 a.m. finishing the last 100 pages because I just had to know what happened or I wouldn’t have been able to sleep.
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.