This review contains spoilers for the first JOHN WAYNE CLEAVER trilogy.
John Wayne Cleaver is a seventeen-year-old boy who wants very, very much to kill people. Lots of them, one right after the other, in terrible, bloody ways. Paradoxically, because he longs to do that, he has been taking extraordinary lengths to avoid becoming a serial killer. His struggles were related in a trilogy consisting of I Am Not A Serial Killer (reviewed here), Mr. Monster (reviewed here), and I Don’t Want to Kill You (reviewed here). That trilogy showed how John’s efforts to avoid acting on his murderous desires ran smack into his discovery of demons, and the very genuine need to kill those demons to save the people he loved. Alas, John was not able to save the people he loved most. As this trilogy opens with The Devil’s Only Friend, John’s bitterness at his failures is on open display, even as he works with a special FBI unit dedicated to rooting out and destroying demons.
Brooke Watson, a girl John’s age who has been mentally broken by her contact with the demon called Nobody, accompanies the team, though she is not precisely a part of it. Her company tortures John, for in essence Brooke is possessed by a demon John killed named Nobody; Brooke retains that demon’s memories, and her mind was so warped by the possession that she still believes she is Nobody. Yet John faithfully spends time with Brook that goes far beyond what is necessary to do his work. The mind of Nobody insists that the Withered (as she calls the demons) are evil, and is eager to assist John and his team to get rid of them, so she’s a tactical advantage for the FBI. They keep Brooke in a secure hospital facility wherever they set up operations.
As the story opens the team is in Fort Bruce, a small city in the Midwest, where they are collecting data on two demons living there: Mary Gardner, a demon who works as a nurse in order to drain the health of others in order to keep herself healthy; and Cody French, who never sleeps, and must download his awareness into another human in order to get some rest — which drives the human mad. Alarmingly, just after the team completes one operation, Brooke reveals that yet another of the Withered is in town. Those who have read Next of Kin will recognize this character, but the team comes to the immediate conclusion that its members are being hunted by the demons. And although they reached that conclusion for the wrong reasons, they happen to be right.
The team unravels the puzzles of the demons, their powers, and how to kill them in this novel, giving it some of the characteristics of a mystery. And the team battles the demons with everything they’ve got, so it’s also an action novel. Both aspects of the novel work well, and they work well together. The pacing is excellent, as the team’s actions go from a seemingly simple operation to a more difficult one to one that seems all but impossible, leading to a climax where everything, including everything that happened in the first trilogy, comes into play. The only criticism I have is that the law enforcement personnel involved have absolutely no notion of the law, and especially of how due cause for a search is established. Perhaps Wells ought to consult with a lawyer or a police officer for his next novel.
What most intrigued me about this novel, and what lends it its bleak darkness, is John’s inner life. John narrates the novel, so he tells us how the mysteries are solved and watches the action (he’s usually not allowed to participate, for several reasons), always with a quickness of thought and a bleakness of aspect. John’s time with demons has not cured him of his desire to hurt and kill animals and other humans; in fact, he has plans for how to kill everyone on his team. He wrestles with his own internal demons, battles that are harder fought than any of those against the outer, physically real demons. Wells delves deep within the brain of a sociopath struggling not to commit sociopathic acts because he knows they are wrong, even as he longs deep within himself to see the blood, to feel the knife entering flesh. “I’m trying very hard not to become a serial murderer,” he tells another member of the team, and we are witnesses to that internal battle. (One of the scariest moments in the novel is when John actually does kill someone: “It was exactly like I’d dreamed it,” John tells us, and then goes on to explain in detail. It’s stomach-turning.)
The ending is both triumphal and bleak, and it’s hard to imagine where Wells will go from here. He has written a book that stands on its own, not dependent on the trilogy that went before and not truly needing the books that are going to come after. I can hardly wait 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.