I am not a Serial Killer (Dan Wells): Book Review

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…the truth was far more terrifying; true terror doesn’t come from giant monsters but small innocent-looking people… People like me. — John Cleaver

SYNOPSIS: John Wayne Cleaver is a 15-year old sociopath working as a part time embalmer in his family’s funeral home. Unlike most people his age, he does not feel empathy for other people, but he tries to hide his abnormality from the rest of the world by pretending to be normal and following rules that are intended to steer him off the path of being a serial killer, of which he knows he has a great tendency for. But when a serial killer strikes in his very own hometown, John is forced to unleash the monster inside him to prevent the killer from victimizing more people from his community.

The first thing that got me interested in reading the book was the title. I am not a Serial Killer had an ominous ring to it, and learning that the main protagonist is actually a 15 year old mortician piqued my curiosity even more.

John Wayne Cleaver, who believes he was named after the serial killer John Wayne Gacy (instead of the actor John Wayne), is really a compelling protagonist. Pragmatic and matter of fact, he analyzes his own personality as clinically as he would the serial killers he is so obsessed about. Its true that its a tad creepy for a teenager, especially one as young as John to be fascinated by death the way that he is but part of the book’s charm is how it successfully manages to get readers to empathize with a character who feels no empathy for others.

John is a very smart character and I’m always a sucker for smart characters. Dan Wells created such a strong personality in John that readers hear his voice loud and clear — his loneliness, his dysfunction, his youth in his first person narrative. I liked the fact that he’s always trying to indirectly get the advice of his therapist Dr. Neblin because he acknowledges that there is something deeply wrong with him. He understands himself and his psychosis really well, and I must say, I’ve learned a lot about sociopaths, murderers and serial killers from him better than any TV show or psychology book. He’s like a composite of Dexter and Norman Bates but readers can tell he is still at the beginning stages because he is still able to understand his limits — what he can and can’t do.

The book changed its tone in the middle and veered towards the supernatural, and although John’s serial killer tendencies were still at the forefront of the plot, especially when he was trying to outsmart the actual killer, it seemed weird and off balance at that point. I thought it would have been much cooler for John to have dealt with an actual serial killer rather than a demon so he could test out his mettle against a like-minded enemy.

I felt like the beginning served as a great opening for a thriller for a variety of demographics but in going the mythical path, it seemed to downgrade itself to the kiddie section, to the Hardy Boys/Scooby Doo audience. This is not to say that the book was not well written because it was marvelous from start to finish. It was a really compelling read but I just felt like John Wayne Cleaver could have done better going head to head with a real live killer. It would have given him more room to learn about himself and his potential future.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading I am not a Serial Killer.  It was suspenseful and tense in all the right moments but it never lost touch of its sense of humanity despite its depiction of the monsters inside regular people (not just John). Seeing as the book is only the first one in a trilogy, it successfully opened doors for future plotlines like John falling in love with Brooke (he is after all a teenager). Also, now that his alter ego Mr. Monster is already out, it would be interesting to see how his two personas will wrestle and who will prevail in the end.

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