Review: “I Am Not a Serial Killer” by Dan Wells

Cover of "I Am Not a Serial Killer"I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells is the story of a fifteen-year-old sociopath. It’s the sort of young adult book that gets shelved in with adult novels, because the experiences of a fifteen-year-old white boy are the sort of thing that everyone is supposed to be able to relate to. (Where this particular book ends up in the bookstore is governed by some arcane system that I do not fully understand. It took two Borders employees the better part of a quarter-hour to find my copy, and not for lack of trying – what I will miss most when my local Borders closes are the people who worked there.)

Our hero, young John Wayne Cleaver, is trying very hard not to become a serial killer. He’s a lonely sociopath who has been obsessed with serial killers ever since he saw a picture of John Wayne Gacy in the newspaper when he was eight. He is smart and self-aware enough to be terrified by all the things in his life that seem to be pushing him down that road. He believes that the strict system of self-imposed rules which he lives under will keep his dark impulses in check. Like a lot of sociopaths, he’s capable of pretending to be an ordinary human being, until he is put under stress — in this case, by the appearance of what might be a real serial killer in his quiet town.

This is Dan Wells’s first novel, a fact that is in no way borne out by the quality of the writing. His prose is clear and direct, with an edge of sardonic humor that keeps the reader from getting too wrapped up in all the terrible things that are happening until the author decides to go for the big scare. Staying inside his young sociopath’s head lets him avoid some of the more obvious cliches. John Wayne Cleaver is not inclined to guilt. He is capable of operating with scary precision at times when an ordinary character would be curled up and gibbering on the floor. He likes dead bodies.

I Am Not A Serial Killer is a fast read. Dan Wells does a superb job of using suspense to keep the reader interested, without hording all the secrets for a dramatic reveal at the end. The beginning, which is devoted to the trials of a fifteen-year-old boy’s life, is saved by his humor and the mental-whiplash-inducing mentions of the supernatural element that drives the rest of the book. Watching that supernatural horror stalking the townsfolk is only slightly scarier than watching John Wayne Cleaver’s self-control crumble.

Whether or not this book lives up to the standards of the horror genre is not something I feel that I can fairly judge. I am not a horror reader. I will say that I Am Not A Serial Killer is a fun book and a nice change from my usual fare. It’s always nice to find a stand-alone novel with a satisfying ending that also has sequels. I will be interested to read those sequels – if Mr. Wells continues to improve his writing, they should be very strong books indeed. I recommending tracking down I Am Not A Serial Killer in your local bookstore — finding it may be an adventure, but the effort will be worth it.