A young adult thriller with strong supernatural elements, I Am Not A Serial Killer is the first book in the John Cleaver Trilogy and the debut novel of author Dan Wells, one of the authors on the popular podcast Writing Excuses.
I Am Not A Serial Killer tells the story of fifteen-year-old John Cleaver, a teenage boy that has an obsession with serial killers and sociopathic tendencies that he keeps in check with a strict list of rules. But when a grisly string of murders begin in his small town of Clayton and the bodies begin to show up in the mortuary where John works with his mom and aunt, he is soon desperate to learn everything he can about the mysterious killer at the risk of releasing his own darker side.
An authentic atmosphere
As a reader living in a town not much larger than the book’s setting of Clayton, the atmosphere that Wells created felt extraordinarily authentic to me. He perfectly captures the feel of living in an area where everyone knows everyone, and capitalizes on this brilliantly by creating a sense of claustrophobia as the killings escalate and the town begins to degenerate into chaos. The book plays not only on the fear that the next person to be slaughtered on the street might be someone you know, but also the very real possibility that the killer is living in your very neighborhood—perhaps across the street, or even next door. Wells makes full use of this charged atmosphere to ratchet up the tension with every chapter, and the suspense tightens around the story like a noose as the reader burns through the second half of the book.
An engaging protagonist
Part of what makes John Cleaver such a fascinating protagonist is that he is fully aware of his flaws. Unlike characters who are inhibited by weaknesses they are unable to recognize, John knows exactly what his problems are. His struggles stem from his inability to overcome them. He knows that he is unable to empathize with others, but he simply cannot make himself feel the emotions he wants to. He knows that he incapable of carrying on a proper conversation, but he still can never find the right thing to say.
Wells isn’t afraid to let John act in ways that are true to his character either. He threatens to kill one of his peers, brandishes a knife at his mother, and even stalks the girl he likes and has fantasies of killing her. These are the moments when John is truly himself, but the reader can’t help but sympathize with him because he tries so hard to resist these impulses. This makes him an extraordinarily engaging character because we know he desperately wants to be normal, but also that he is happiest when he is hurting others. An effective dual conflict is created here: the external conflict presented by the serial killer, and the internal conflict presented by John’s own darker nature. Wells uses both as complements to each other and as a method to keep the pressure on for the entire length of the story.
A supernatural edge
I know some readers were taken by surprise by the sudden supernatural twist that turns the story around about a hundred pages in, but Wells isn’t trying to subvert the reader’s expectations. In fact, he uses John’s narration to make it clear early in the book that the story will have a supernatural element. I was initially of the opinion that the book would have been more effective without this supernatural edge, but Wells handles this aspect of the story so deftly and with such effectiveness that I quickly reversed my opinion. He skillfully integrates the supernatural element into the existing story and even uses it as a vehicle for subtle but powerful themes regarding the nature of death.
A forced resolution
Unfortunately, the novel falters in its final chapters. The climax and conclusion of the novel gave me the impression that Wells had written himself into a corner and didn’t know how to bring the story to a natural ending. It felt extremely rushed and seemed like Wells was simply marking items off a checklist to fulfill his requirements for a proper ending. The characters’ actions felt forced and disingenuous, as if they were simply going through the motions rather than staying faithful to the personalities that Wells so carefully crafted over the course of the novel. It’s a pity that the book had to go out on this note, but it’s a rather minor quibble in the overall story.
Why should you read this book?
I Am Not A Serial Killer is a book best read in one sitting to make the most of its fast pace and strong narrative momentum. If you have a free day to sit down and read, are looking for something fast, fun, and entertaining, and don’t mind a strong supernatural edge to an otherwise straight-up thriller, this debut novel from Dan Wells is a fantastic choice.