Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Written by . Posted at 4:21 pm on January 5th, 2011

Last month I had the chance to attend a book signing at Dragons & Fairy Tales in Eagle Mountain, Utah with authors Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson. At the signing, I picked up copies of I Am Not a Serial Killer and Mr. Monster by Mr. Wells, and had a chance to chat briefly with him about my own writing. I think it went something like, “Dan Wells! I’m such a huge fan! I listen to your podcast every week!” followed by unintelligible gushing. Okay maybe not, I actually had never read any of his books, but they came highly recommended by a mutual friend, Eric Ehlers. Eric was right once again.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is a young adult fiction with mystery, supernatural, and psychological thriller overtones that, unlike this review, wastes no time in getting into the meat of the story and keeps it moving along comfortably, like roadkill in a vulture’s intestines. John Wayne Cleaver, a mid-teen who works for his mortician mother in the embalming room, realizes at an early age that he is attracted to serial killers. He feels that murder is wrong and does not glorify what they do, but is fascinated instead by their psyche. As he begins to mature, he realizes he has many of the same behavioral issues that these killers exhibited when they were his age. This troubles him. He sets up rules for himself in order to help prevent going down that same path. The novel starts out with a body being found in town, then another a month later. When John comes to the realization that there is a serial killer in his own town with supernatural abilities, he begins to break his own rules in order to stop this evil.

The text is well written and the storyline unfolds at a comfortable pace. The attention to detail does not bore. The internal and external dialog of John and the other characters is believable and never feels like fluff. Add these to the suspenseful plot and they all come together to create an engaging world that I enjoyed visiting in my mind, but do not want to live there.

John is a broken protagonist who decides he can’t go to the police because of the supernatural twist that the story takes. Did the abstract on the back of the book mention the supernatural twist to the multiple murder case? No? Well, there is, and it does interesting things with John’s dilemma. Like a grave robber, I did some digging on other review sites after reading the book to find out what the average reader thought. The vast majority were positive, but one common complaint was opening the book with the promise of a murder mystery and getting blindsided by the supernatural elements, which is a shame. Again, it is because of this twist that John decides he must be the one to destroy the serial killer. If he went to the police or FBI with what he had witnessed, he’d be given a new white jacket with buckled cuffs and a padded room to play in. He alone must stop the killer before more people in his town die. While some have compared his character to Dexter, they are not cut from the same mold necessarily. Had the plot not contained the supernatural element that it did, John would have easily turned the whole thing over to the police and the story would have ended in a much more boring fashion.

I found the book a lot of fun to read. Who hasn’t seen a crime show on television, read a good mystery, or even watched stories of crimes on the local television and daydreamed about how they would pull off their own perfect crime? Most of us probably say things like, “What kind of idiot doesn’t think these things through and gets themselves caught?” If you say you haven’t, you’re either lying to yourself, or you’re completely innocent and have never pondered such things, which means I either need to say “Hi Mom!” or tell you to get out of the house more. Or both. Often while reading this novel, I would find myself saying, “That’s what I would have done,” as if Dan had peaked into my mind as a reader and resolved most of the angles I could conceive to hide my dirty deeds.

I have little negative criticism for his book, but there is some and I must be objective and include it. My first complaint is how predictable it was. In I Am Not a Serial Killer, I knew who the serial killer was the moment the character was introduced. The identity is revealed at about the halfway point of the novel, so my feelings of “when will Mr. Wells get around to admitting that this person is the killer?” was short-lived, at least. Other plot elements seemed fairly obvious to me, including the killer’s weakness. The positive side to this is that there were many elements which were foreshadowed nicely and discovered when the author wanted you to discover them. Some elements that seemed out of place for either the setting or character actually ended up being on purpose, which was interesting. Most of what I had initially considered accidental flaws turned out to be very intentional and insightful.

My other major complaint was what seemed to me to be a major hole in the plot. John needs to kill the killer, but he can’t let it be traced back to him or he’ll be arrested for the murder and for his methods. Again, because of the nature of the murderer, the police would never believe John. And yet, for being so careful about everything, Mr. Wells leaves a hole in the evidence wide enough for the FBI to drive a black SUV through. I won’t risk a spoiler by saying more, but anyone who has watched more than one episode of Law & Order, CSI, Castle, or anything similar will spot it easily. That being said, I have a feeling that I’m not smarter than the author, and this loophole will come back to haunt John before the end of the series. I hope this is one of those poignant plot points disguised as an oversight by the character, so as not to cloud my impression of the series as a whole.

Overall, would I recommend this book to everyone? Absolutely not. My nieces and nephews, and anyone else under the age of 13, should not read this book. If made into a movie, it would definitely be PG-13. The blood and gore are not gratuitous—it all serves a purpose—but there is a lot of talk about body parts and corpses, not to mention John’s disturbing thoughts on paper. My mother should not read this book either. It is graphic, it is somewhat disturbing, and it is dark.

To anyone else who felt their eyebrows lift in interest at those three descriptive words, I have no problem recommending this novel. Despite being labeled as a Young Adult book, I didn’t feel that it was “dumbed down” in any way. I am very glad I read it and have cruised through the next book in the series already. Be sure to check back in a few days for my review of Mr. Monster, the second book in the John Cleaver series. In the mean time, head on over to Amazon to pick up a copy if this sounds like the type of book you’d be interested in.

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