20. A debut novel: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
List Progress: 28/30
Much has been made in online discourse about how sympathetic a story’s protagonist should be. How much harm or evil can a character commit before an audience stops engaging with them? Dan Wells’ 2009 debut novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer, pushes that question to its extremes with a character that literally does not feel sympathy. Fifteen year old John Wayne Cleaver is a diagnosed sociopath, and he worries that his lack of empathy and his fascination with serial killers means that he is fated to become one. But as the title proclaims, John is not a serial killer, because he makes active choices to avoid becoming one; which is not to say that he does not do some reprehensible things over the course of the novel. But when a real serial killer begins terrorizing his small town, he can use his weaknesses as strengths to actually save lives.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is very fast moving, more than a little pulpy and easy to fly through, but it still has some important points to make and conversations to raise. John is not called a sociopath because he is some edge-lord rebellious teenager; that is the legitimate conclusion his therapist has come to over time and that the adults in his life are learning to cope with and support him around. This is how John is wired, he is not going to grow empathy and emotional connection overnight, but he has intellectually learned the difference between right and wrong and sets himself rules and boundaries to try and keep to that moral system. His mother is convinced that she ruined him by letting him work in the family mortuary growing up and desensitizing him to death, but he is sure that this is just the way he is.
This careful realism and discussion of morality gets turned on its ear about one hundred pages in with an abrupt genre shift. In a lot of ways the back half of the book reminded me of Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, with its slightly-incongruous but compelling mix of meticulously detailed teenage life and supernatural elements. I did appreciate that even when supernatural elements entered into the story, those were not the reasons for John’s issues. He’s mentally ill, not cursed or possessed. (Though there are two sequels, so I can’t speak to any plot revelations in those.)
There is a fair amount of gore, both in the killings and in the mortuary. There’s references to animal abuse and pyromania, and a lot of stalking. I would not blame anyone for saying this book was a bit too much for their tastes. But despite, or perhaps because of, the pulpiness and fast pace, I really ended up enjoying it, and might explore more of what Dan Wells has to offer. This was certainly an impressive start out of the gate.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you don’t mind the topics mentioned above.