Friday, April 29, 2011

Killer Is Engaging, Adult

What is evil and who can properly be called it? It's a big question that isn't often approached with much rigor by writers. Genre scribes tend to create Really Nasty Guys whose deeds are so exponentially worse than everyone else's that they become caricatures or retreat into a facile nihilism where wretchedness is universal and therefore not particularly worthy of attention. But one certainly can't accuse Dan Wells of treating the topic flippantly. His debut thriller, I Am Not a Serial Killer, examines evil in surprising depth, especially given that it's aimed at the young adult market.

John Wayne Cleaver prefers the company of corpses over people. The dead don't require any of that confusing empathy the living are so fond of, and he has plenty of access to the recently departed since his mother runs a mortuary. John knows that there's something wrong with him, knows that normal folks don't share his fascination with the macabre. But the pieces only come together when his counselor provides a one-word prognosis -- sociopath. Then John realizes he also has a fascination with fire, a propensity for animal cruelty and an occasional inability to control his bladder, a trio of traits called Macdonald's Triad, which is a test for serial killers. A test that John passes perfectly. He doesn't want to become that sort of person, so he sets rules for himself in order to keep his darker side at bay. But when a real serial killer turns up in his small town, John knows that his actions may tempt him to do the worst -- and that he may be the only person who can stop him.

Straight away, let me say that Killer is a thrilling read. Wells nails the tone and pacing, and I suspect that the novel will be a one-sitting read for many. Don't go into it expecting typical crime fiction, though. A supernatural twist occurs about halfway through, but rather than upending the story, I found it added heft. Ditto for Wells' consideration of evil and the divine. Using a pair of William Blake's poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience ("The Lamb" and "The Tyger") as a framing device, he ponders with problem of evil with both profundity and reverence. Managing to humanize evildoers without excusing their deeds is an accomplishment. Despite its excellence, though, the book isn't the least bit appropriate for a YA audience. This Killer is for adults only.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Giampaolo Macorig; Hat Tip: Chestertonian Rambler)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Glad you enjoyed it.


Personally, the thing I found disappointing was not the supernatural element, but the fact that it somehow introduced itself unobtrusively. I kept expecting there to be a twist where the supernatural is revealed as mundane, a la The Hound of the Baskervilles or similar crime fiction. The lack threw me off (though not for long).

I feel that, as an author, I really want to know what went wrong, so I can avoid it. Apparently Dan Wells has many readers who felt the same way, but I don't think his theories (as expressed on Writing Excuses) capture what I felt, at all. I think it may boil own to an old genre-fiction adage: the reader will believe anything you tell them to, but only if you establish it on page one.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, I'm not sure how adult the book is, really. I was reading uncensored fairy tales and full-blown adult books by junior high myself, but I don't think they are responsible for any of my many mental hang-ups. Heck, I was *assigned* The Red Pony in Junior High, and the image of its vicious demise felt much more vivid than anything in I Am Not A Serial Killer.

Loren Eaton said...


Actually, I thought Wells did a pretty good job introducing the supernatural element from the first chapter on. He includes all the details about the nature of the wounds and the odd organ stealing, which are pretty good hints that something not very normal is going on.

And the fact that I have to mention organ stealing and pathology to me pretty much puts it outside the realm of appropriateness for young-uns. Yes, I know they're savvier than I was as a kid and that subjective impressions of texts are all over the board. But I thought a warning was in order for the more conservative out there.