I Am Not a Serial Killer is the first of three John Cleaver books by Dan Wells. It is followed by Mr. Monster and I Don’t Want to Kill You, in that order.
Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is convinced that fate wants him to become a serial killer. Two serial killers have names that apply to him, his last name is a murder weapon, and he exhibits the classic traits shared by 95% of serial killers: bed-wetting, pyromania, and a tendency to be cruel toward animals. He has a complete lack of empathy, and at a very early age he realized he’s not like other people. For this reason, he made up a set of rules to keep himself from giving in to compulsions that may lead to serial killing. He avoids animals as much as possible, he compliments people when he has the urge to hurt them, and he ignores someone for a week if he finds himself spending a lot of time watching that one person. Fate may seem to want him to become a serial killer, but John is not a serial killer – and is determined to remain that way.
Ever since he was young, John has helped his mother and his aunt with the embalming dead bodies at the mortuary. When a local man is found gruesomely murdered, John gets to see the body firsthand and notices a kidney is missing, leading him to wonder if this is the work of a serial killer. This is indeed the first in a string of murders in John’s hometown, and John becomes obsessed with figuring out what makes this particular killer tick. He’s studied serial killers more than anyone, and perhaps he can figure out a way to stop this killer – even after he discovers the killer’s nature is not at all what he was expecting. Yet the more John becomes involved in learning about this killer, the more it means becoming closer to his dark side than he ever has before. Can he stop the murders without sacrificing the control he’s worked so hard to maintain?
A couple of days before Halloween, I decided it was time to read I Am Not a Serial Killer. It was a good choice for this holiday since it was partially horror/dark contemporary fantasy, plus it featured a main character that was perhaps the creepiest aspect of all. I found it to be an entertaining page-turner that was never boring, yet I only liked it a little bit for some reason. It took me awhile to really figure out why because the way it explored the dark side of the main character seemed exactly like the type of thing I would love. However, it was a very predictable story that was not at all subtle, and that’s where it fell short for me. Of course, there have been times when I’ve still loved a predictable story so I still struggled with why this one didn’t leave me with the urge to read more despite finding it reasonably entertaining. I’ve come to the conclusion that it just didn’t have characters I loved or the large-scale, sweeping story I enjoy so much, and this is partially a case of this just not being a book for me.
The best part of I Am Not a Serial Killer is how the main character’s darker side shows the horrors within people who may seem ordinary on the outside. John is just a fifteen-year-old boy who probably appears like a perfectly nice young man to anyone who doesn’t know about his obsession with serial killers – he goes to high school, he has a best friend, he helps out his mother, and he shovels the snow for the elderly couple next door. Yet underneath all appearances is a person who has no empathy whatsoever, has the desire to cut people open and see what’s inside, and has had to study the world around him in order to figure out what’s normal and how to emulate it. For instance, John has no desire to spend time with the other boy he’s picked to be his best friend, but feels like he needs to do so to blend in and keep from seeming too weird.
In some ways, his character is creepier to read about than the killer in his hometown since it does involve getting inside the head of someone who fits the profile for a serial killer – and believes fate wants him to be one and is fighting against it. Even though John tries to learn how to be a good person, he doesn’t really understand right and wrong. He has to pay attention to what other people consider to be right and wrong and set up rules to keep himself from going too far down the wrong path. As he pursues the killer in this story, he also has to face much of what he fears in himself since he sometimes breaks his rules. He’s a really interesting character, but he does have some dark urges that may keep some from liking him as a character. Between that and his rather clinical view of death, he may not be the easiest person to relate to and he’s certainly not an easy character to forge an emotional connection to.
Despite this, I think I would have found John Wayne Cleaver more compelling if this was my first experience with a fictional character like him. I haven’t read Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books, but I am a huge fan of Dexter, the TV show they are based on. Dexter and John are very similar characters. (Please note this is not to say John is a copycat of Dexter since I rather doubt either character is the first in fiction to fit this mold; Dexter was just the first one I encountered and I think that affected my own experience with this book.) Both John and Dexter realize what they are and follow rules to try to control their behavior, and both of them made up names for their dark side. They are a little different since Dexter’s rules are in place to control the type of person he kills while John’s rules are to keep himself from hurting anyone, and of course, they are in completely different situations in life. However, it is basically the same idea of someone with the personality traits that lead to serial killing facing his dark side and trying to control it. I may have been a bit more intrigued by a character like John if I had not kept comparing him to Dexter, who also has the advantage of being one of my favorite TV characters.
Even if the character type was familiar ground, the story was very different from that on Dexter, although it was not a very original story. I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the reasons I was interested in reading this book was that it apparently had a big twist. After reading it, I was puzzled about why it was considered to be such an unpredictable event since it’s hinted at early on, plus John has already straight-out given it away by the end of chapter three. Once you combine that with a not-so-subtle name, it’s really not hard to figure out what’s coming. The pivotal scene was still a bit creepy since it was told from John’s completely unsuspecting perspective, but I didn’t find what happened at all surprising. Perhaps it was just a case of looking for it too hard since I knew ahead of time there was going to be a major event, but I don’t think so given the references made beforehand.
For such a short book, there’s also a lot of over-explanation and I did feel like it spelled out far more of what was going on than was necessary. It was a quick read so it didn’t seem hugely wordy, but since it’s told from John’s first-person perspective there’s a lot of inner monologue and telling. That’s not to say it commits the crime some books do where it tells readers one thing and shows otherwise since there are touches such as John’s lack of emotional connection keeping him from seeing what’s very obvious. This was a case where the main character missing something made perfect sense and worked well with the character. However, I do think there were times the telling went overboard such as the revelation of the aforementioned case, which didn’t need to include a lot of telling. Of course, it was all told from the perspective of John, and he was working that out for himself so perhaps that’s a bit nitpicky. However, there were times I felt that the book was treating me as if I were too dumb to figure out what was obvious since it explained everything, and I found that mildly irritating.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is a fast-paced book that sets up a very interesting personal struggle for the main character. Yet the actual storyline was not as compelling, plus much of what happened was very predictable. The book held my attention while reading it, but it didn’t get under my skin enough to make me want to pick up the next book in the series, especially considering it was also far from subtle or original. The series does have a lot of fans, and I can see its appeal, but it wasn’t to my taste despite having a lot of elements I usually enjoy, such as a couple of complex characters and dark humor.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.
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