Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer, by Dan Wells

"The teenage (and innocent) John Wayne Cleaver swears he is not the serial killer that has emerged in his small town--despite his grisly name and a series of unpleasant and eerie similarities. His fascination with the killer leads him to launch his own investigation of sorts-- one that leads him to the identity of the murderer."
- product page

All discussions of ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ take place in a room with a dirty great elephant in the corner, and that elephant’s name is Dexter. There really is no way to review Dan Wells novel of a young man unhealthily preoccupied with the business of serial killers without mentioning Jeff Lindey’s own dark night, Dexter Morgan.

But if we set aside the tv show, (and really how can a tv show and a book be compared?) and focus solely on the Dexter Novels, or rather let’s just focus on the first one, ‘Darkly Dreaming Dexter,’ because that’s the only one I’ve read, in my opinion ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ is the superior work.

John Wayne Cleaver is definitely the more likable protagonist. Not because, unlike Dexter, he has not given into his murderous urges. A character has to commit some epically heinous acts for me to hate them for it, and even then a clever author (I’m looking at you Geroge R. R. Martin) can have me back in love with them in a matter of pages. So no, I don’t prefer John because he’s still technically innocent. Actually, in many ways I would say that, despite the lack of murders committed, John Wayne cleaver reaches much darker depths than Dexter. By making Dexter more or less sexless Lindsey neatly sidesteps the issue of sex. I don’t know what it says about our society, but violent murder seems to be easy to forgive, whereas any sexual crime is not. I would say that Dexter’s interactions with Rita make his crimes much easier to take. He can dismember a man gleefully and the go home to Rita and play the role of sweet father figure to her kids. It makes him kinda hard to hate. Dan Wells does not take this, what some might call easy, route with John. He likes a girl, insofar as he is capable anyway, and his interactions with her oscillate from almost sweet to incredibly disturbing. This was almost a side plot to the main story line, and I will be interesting in seeing if Wells explores it further in the later books in the series.

I think it comes to down the inner monologues. Dexter is prone to great passages of serial killer angst, which works really well in the brief overhead snippets we hear on the show, but reading slabs of it is enough to make your eyes bleed purple. It’s not that John is without this angst, indeed he even has his own Mr. Monster in the same vein as Dexter’s Dark Passanger, but somehow his struggle is just so much more interesting. Maybe it is because he hasn’t killed yet, after all. When Dexter fights his inner monster there is a lack of tension, we know that it is inevitable that Dexter will cave and kill again. But for John this struggle is still a struggle. There is real tension when he fights to keep his monster at bay (and a note here to say I find the descriptions of John’s dark side, describes as a literal monster caged in his mind to be more effective the shadowey presense of Dexter’s dark passenger), because the reader just doesn’t know who will win.

Of course, the main way in which I Am Not A Serial Killer differs from Darkly Dreaming Dexter is the supernatural element. I sometimes resent the introduction of the supernatural where I was not expecting it, but I can see what Wells was trying to do here. The evil monster (it’s not really a monster but I don’t want to spoil it) provides an interesting reflection to John. John is human, the monster is not, and yet which more humane? This observation is for the reader to puzzle over, I don’t think it even occurs to John to ask himself this question, that he would even be capable of asking it. Which, I suppose, is an answer in itself.

My only real complaint with I Am Not A Serial Killer would be the ending, or rather the final climax. Not all of it, mind you. There is a moment of bitter struggle between John and his inner monster that is thrilling to read, and just proves what I was trying to say about the lack of tension between Dexter and his dark passenger. But there are few coincidences that bothered me a little, and it seemed liked maybe John got off a little too easy. (But nothing compared to some of the scrapes Dexter miraculously comes out of clean in the show, but of course I said there was no comparing book and show, so…) I would also have liked to see more interactions between John and those around him. His therapist, especially, was an interesting guy. But these are incredibly minor complaints though, and certainly it hasn’t stopped me from bumping the book's sequel, "Mr. Monster," to the top of my books to buy list.
How did this book find its way into my hot little hands? I bought it


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