Review of I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells
I Am Not A Serial Killer
by Dan Wells
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I don't recommend using fiction novels, particularly thrillers, as any kind of diagnostic test. That would be like diagnosing yourself with lupus after matching up symptoms to a patient on House. Still, if Dan Wells' look at the psychology of a boy who worries he's going to turn serial killer is anywhere near accurate, it's a little reassuring, because now I know I am not a serial killer.
I shall sweep that niggling issue of accuracy aside. Firstly, it's not all that essential, for reasons I'll explore later. Secondly, I'm not really qualified to address it, and I don't want to keep interjecting caveats every second sentence. Indeed, I am not the most ardent advocate of psychology in general. It is a very young field of science (and it took some convincing on the part of several friends that it is a science at all), and the human condition is so remarkably complex that psychology can't give us all the answers, at least not right now. So we can't construct a profile that will describe every serial killer. And not every sociopath is going to be a serial killer or even be at risk of becoming one. Wells himself emphasizes this with the interaction between John and Dr. Neblin. Nevertheless, it is still interesting to explore that potential, at least in one individual, to pursue a mode of action so foreign to everyday society.
That's really the draw of serial killers, right? I'm not actually much of a serial killer enthusiast myself. I have neither read nor watched that other serial killer series, somewhat from a lack of inclination but not out of any dislike for the concept. I understand the source of fascination though, and it's something Wells captures at the end of the first chapter:
"Not murderers," I said, "serial killers."
"That's the difference between you and the rest of the world, John. We don't see a difference."
On a moral level, John's Aunt Margaret is correct. However, I think most of us do make a distinction between serial killers and murderers; psychology certainly does. We're fascinated by the grisly act of killing another human being, yes—even single murders draw our attention—but serial killers are fascinating because their motive does not come from sudden passion or from a premeditated plan to remove someone perceived as an obstacle or a threat. Serial killers kill out of compulsion, out of a desire that, by definition, is something human. And if it's human, it means we might have it too—maybe not as much, maybe not as strong, but still there, lurking. So we compartmentalize, categorize, classify. Serial killers become something else, something inhuman, something Other. And as much as the Other frightens us, it fascinates us too.
Wells capitalizes on this by playing off our expectations of a serial killer as the Other. This is why the psychological verity of the portrayal of John Wayne Cleaver is not a big issue. It doesn't matter whether John is going to turn serial killer or not; all that matters is that the audience expects this of him. Notice, moreover, that the only character convinced John will be a serial killer is John (well, and Max, but that's really irrelevant here). Dr. Neblin, the only character with a degree in psychology, is not convinced of this. Neblin reminds John at every opportunity that his choices are his own; even if John has antisocial personality disorder, he's not destined to become a serial killer. Only John, a fifteen-year-old boy who is obsessed with reading about serial killers, tells us he thinks he is going to become a serial killer. And if that doesn't scream "unreliable narrator," I don't know what does.
So as its title honestly informs us prior to reading, I am Not a Serial Killer isn't a book about a serial killer! It's about a young man who thinks he will become a serial killer. And that makes it much more compelling than just another serial killer novel. There is tension over how John's perception of himself will contribute to the resolution of the plot. Will John kill the Clayton killer? Is John the Clayton Killer (unreliable narrator remember)?
From other reviews I've read, some people are very disappointed with the supernatural twist. At first, as a science-fiction fanatic, I wasn't sure what the problem was. So it wasn't what you were expecting? Boo-hoo. If every book were exactly what you expect every time, that would make for boring reading! However, upon further reflection, I think I understand the sense of betrayal these reviewers express. We already have the presence of one Other in the book; another Other feels like too much. Revealing that the Clayton Killer is a "demon," as John calls it, and not an "ordinary" human, distances us further from the killer, and thus from John's struggle to find and deal with the killer while preserving his own humanity. It acts as a cold shower to our suspense-laden aphrodisiac. Killing another human is wrong, full-stop. Killing a demon though? That's morally acceptable, perhaps even a moral obligation! Despite John's warnings that any such act, even one committed against a demon, is going to unleash his own inner monster, the ethical dilemma is no longer as compelling once we know the death of another human, even a serial killer, is taken off the table.
I wish the ramifications of Mr. Crowley's actions were addressed more thoroughly. Toward the end, we get more sympathy for the devil: Mr. Crowley never used to kill so many people; he just killed a single person and took their entire body. Now, however, he has a human wife, whom he loves, and he is maintaining his body in a piece-meal fashion for as long as possible so he can continue being with her. And when John finally dispatches him, Crowley begs John not to reveal the truth, especially not to Kay. John complies (who would believe him any way?), and everyone else gets to continue living under the illusion that Mr. Crowley was a harmless old man. So I can definitely sympathize with Mr. Crowley, a little, but still: he was killing people. Kind of not acceptable. I would have liked a little more exposition from Crowley than the one speech he gives John over the phone.
For John's plight, however, Mr. Crowley's demonic nature is significant. Here I'm choosing to trust John's story, at least the basics—you could definitely get all postmodern and interpret the "demon" part as some figment of John's imagination. Let's just be literalists for a moment.
Most significantly, once John learns that Mr. Crowley is a demon and the killer, he realizes he is not dealing with a serial killer. In fact, for a book you might assume is about serial killers, no actual serial killers make an appearance. Yes, Crowley kills multiple people, but he does it for a logical reason, not out of the kind of compulsion to kill we established as the defining characteristic of the serial killer. This actually provides a better reason for John to continue investigating the murders. If the Clayton Killer were just an ordinary human, the police could probably catch him or her. After all, that's their job. But the police are stereotypically unable to handle supernatural threats. John is the only one who knows the true nature of the killer—and, additionally, the identity of the killer—so it's his moral obligation to stop Mr. Crowley. To do that, however, John fears he will cross his own ethical line and enjoy the chase too much, enjoy the killing, even of a demon, enough to unleash that compulsion he thinks he has avoided so far.
In the end, John's mother eventually learns the truth, which leads to a moment that is more cathartic than compulsive on John's part. It's a healthy ending, not too melodramatic and not too sinister. There is foreshadowing that this is not the end of John's obsession with serial killers, since this is the first book in a trilogy. I am Not a Serial Killer stands alone, so don't worry about being committed if you read it. That being said, I think I would welcome a sequel. There are some unresolved issues with John's dad that could use a stage, and John's continued emotional development—his relationships with his mother, aunt, sister, and Brooke—could be interesting. When it comes to characterization, Wells' prose is a little flat—then again, we are dealing with a sociopath as the narrator, so perhaps that is justifiable.
I am Not a Serial Killer is not about serial killers, which will disappoint some people. Once you get beyond that, however, what remains is a compelling story about a young man who worries he could be a serial killer, and his struggle against his inner demons even as he fights outer ones. In other words, it's about being a teenager. With demons.