Title: I Am Not A Serial Killer
Author: Dan Wells
Genre: Thriller/Horror, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Tor (US) / Headline (UK)
Publication Date: March 2010 (US) / March 2009 (UK)
Paperback: 272 Pages
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it.
He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.
He’s obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.
Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat—and to appreciate what that difference means.
Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.
Dan Wells’s debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that will keep you awake and then haunt your dreams.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned trilogy
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: It’s no secret that we book smugglers are fans of Dexter – so when I Am Not A Serial Killer graced my doorstep, I was intrigued. This, plus the cool cover, AND a blurb from Brandon Sanderson basically sealed the deal for me (after some initial hesitation).
John Wayne Cleaver may seem like a typical teenage boy, but he’s anything but normal. For one thing, he’s got an unnatural fascination with death and serial killers. For another, he’s a clinically diagnosed sociopath, sharing many of the same red-flag traits – pyromania, enuresis (bed-wetting), and cruelty to animals – with the killers by whom he is so fascinated. And the thing is, John knows he’s at a high risk of becoming something…monstrous. Even though he doesn’t process emotions the same way that normal people do, John acutely understands that killing is wrong, and that he must not cross certain lines. So, to keep his darker urges in check, John creates rules for himself – for example, he won’t fixate on any single person. Following people around, learning their habits, or obsessing about any single person is strictly off limits – if John finds himself paying attention to anyone for too long a period of time, he will make sure not to think about them or cross their path for a week. If someone bullies him at school, or if he grows angry with any single person, he forces himself to think of something nice and pay them a compliment. And all of John’s rules have kept him relatively safe and normal.
That all changes, however, when a bonafide serial killer begins a string of violent murders in John’s town.
As the bodies pile up, John is alternately fascinated and increasingly convinced that he is the only one that can discover and stop the killer. And when he discovers the gruesome truth of the murders, John must break his careful rules, and tear down the carefully constructed wall that keeps his inner monster contained – because only John can stop the killer. But at what cost?
The first thing I thought of when I read the synopsis for I Am Not A Serial Killer was that this sounded a whole lot like my favorite sociopathic murderer – i.e. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter (played on the small screen by the incomparable Michael C. Hall), which is both a good and bad thing. Good, because I love freakin’ love Dexter. Bad, because, well, it sounds a lot like Dexter (a very popular show, and a bestselling, firmly established series). I Am Not A Serial Killer kind of reads like “Dexter: The Early Years” – that is, if Dex didn’t have the “Code of Harry” but his own rules to keep him relatively under control. The similarities are obvious, even down to the alter egos that both characters possess – Dexter has his Dark Passenger, John his Mr. Monster – and in fact, it was this level of similarity (at least in terms of background if not truly in spirit since Dexter nourishes his Dark Passenger, whereas John isolates his) that initially put me off reading this book. But you know what? After resolving myself to give Mr. Wells’ first novel a fair chance, I can safely say that in spite of the similarities, I Am Not A Serial Killer totally stands on its own as a pretty damn solid, entertaining book.
Realistic, gritty and decidedly un-romanticized, from a plotting point of view I Am Not A Serial Killer is kind of like Young Dexter on an episode of The X-Files. There’s the delightful conceit of a having sociopathic future-killer as narrator wrapped up in a murder-thriller novel with a (surprising! but totally welcome) supernatural twist. Mr. Wells’ debut novel, marketed as an adult book in the US (although I believe as a YA book in the UK), is short but excellently paced, with an interesting explication of what truly makes a monster. I loved the very clever juxtaposition of the supernatural “demon” with the very real, human darkness within narrator John. Clearly John does the right thing by setting out to stop the killer from continuing his path of murder, but John takes pleasure in his darkness, whereas the demon does not. The demon experiences love and the range of human emotion – while John does not. It’s an interesting quandary, that of what determines a monster, to say the least.
And while I enjoyed the general direction of the story and found the book well-paced, the only true reason why I Am Not A Serial Killer works and makes a lasting impression is because of its protagonist, John Wayne Cleaver. I mean, take the beautiful absurdity of the name – a cowboy hero (John Wayne), a killer (John Wayne Gacy), and a sort of twisted Leave it to Beaver reference. John is…unexpected. He struggles earnestly with his monster, struggling to do what he objectively knows is the “right” thing – even if he, emotionally, is dissociated from morality. His strict set of self-imposed rules, revealed through his first person narrative and throughout the book with conversations with his therapist, and his dedication to keeping his darker side in check gives him a human, sympathetic side. And yet, Mr. Wells doesn’t take the easy road and make John some toothless dude that’s actually a nice, likable guy with a heart of gold underneath his antisocial personality disorder and dark fascination with death. John is likable to a certain extent (hell, he’s our “hero”), but there are a few scenes in this book – especially the ones involving his mother and then one particular decision towards the end – that remind readers that, hey, this is a dangerous young man with some serious issues.
I started I Am Not A Serial Killer somewhat skeptical – because, let’s face it, the Dexter shadow is a long, dark one – but I finished the book entertained and intrigued. Though he lacks the dark comedy of Jeff Lindsay’s anti-hero, John Wayne Cleaver is certainly an interesting and memorable character. And I am eager to see what happens next, especially considering that Mr. Monster is out of his cage.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Mrs. Anderson was dead.
Nothing flashy, just old age—she went to bed one night and never woke up. They say it was a peaceful, dignified way to die, which I suppose is technically true, but the three days it took for someone to realize they hadn’t seen her in a while removed most of the dignity from the situation. Her daughter eventually dropped by to check on her and found her corpse three days rotted and stinking like roadkill. And the worst part isn’t the rotting, it’s the three days—three whole days before anyone cared enough to say, “Wait, where’s that old lady that lives down by the canal?” There’s not a lot of dignity in that.
But peaceful? Certainly. She died quietly in her sleep on August thirtieth, according to the coroner, which means she died two days before the something tore Jeb Jolley’s insides out and left him in a puddle behind the laundromat. We didn’t know it at the time, but that made Mrs. Anderson the last person in Clayton County to die of natural causes for almost six months. The Clayton Killer got the rest.
Well, most of them. All but one.
We got Mrs. Anderson’s body on Saturday, September Second, after the coroner was done with it—or, I guess I should say that my mom and Aunt Margaret got the body, not me. They’re the ones who run the mortuary; I’m only fifteen. I’d been in town most of the day, watching the police clean up the mess with Jeb, and came back just as the sun was beginning to go down. I slipped in the back just in case my mom was up front. I didn’t really want to see her.
No one was in the back yet, just me and Mrs. Anderson’s corpse. It was lying perfectly still on the table, under a blue sheet. It smelled like rotten meat and bug spray, and the lone ventilator fan buzzing loudly overhead wasn’t doing much to help. I washed my hands quietly in the sink, wondering how long I had, and gently touched the body. Old skin was my favorite—dry and wrinkled, with a texture like antique paper. The coroner hadn’t done much to clean up the body, probably because they were busy with Jeb, but the smell told me that at least they’d thought to kill the bugs. After three days in end-of-summer heat, there had probably been a lot of them.
A woman swung open the door from the front end of the mortuary and came in, looking like a surgeon in her green scrubs and mask. I froze, thinking it was my mother, but the woman just glanced at me and walked to a counter.
“Hi John,” she said, collecting some sterile rags. It wasn’t my mom at all, it was her sister Margaret—they were twins, and when their faces were masked I could barely tell the difference. Margaret’s voice was a little lighter, though, a little more . . . energetic. I figured it was because she’d never been married.
You can read more online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Originally released in the UK, I Am Not A Serial Killer has some US content too. Check, for example, the following book trailer:
(Although I’m not really crazy about the voice or look of John here)
Also, in the UK book 2 of the trilogy has been recently released, titled Mr. Monster. Here’s the rundown:
From the author of I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER…
John Wayne Cleaver has always known he has a dark side but he’s fought hard to oppress it and live a normal life – separating John from Mr Monster to survive. But after confronting and destroying the vicious killer that was terrorizing his town, his inner monster is getting stronger and harder to contain.
And now more bodies are being discovered…
With the police failing to catch Clayton County’s second serial killer John is going to have to use his secret knowledge of the first demon-killer to trap the second…but will he be able to avoid suspicion falling on him, and, in the face of extreme horrors, will he be able to restrain Mr Monster?
I’ve already got my copy – to be reviewed, very soon.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Kraken by China Mieville