At first, the protagonist in Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer feels like a young-adult version of Dexter (Jeff Lindsay’s surprisingly likable vigilante psychopath). John Wayne Cleaver is a teenager with murderous impulses. But he doesn’t want to act on them, so he walls off his inner monster with an ironclad set of rules: if you’re thinking about hurting someone, compliment them instead; if you’re starting to obsess over someone, avoid them for at least a week; etc. Basically, don’t be crazy. All of this is similar to Dexter’s “code,” guidelines he follows to channel his demons in ways that don’t endanger innocents.
But then a real demon shows up and starts butchering people. And it’s this supernatural component that begins to set I Am Not a Serial Killer apart. We’ve seen the “It takes a killer to catch a killer” angle before; setting John on the trail of an actual monster was an interesting wrinkle.
Beyond the otherworldly aspect, though, what I really liked was how John’s inner conflict drove the story. He convinces himself he’s the only one who can stop the demon, but to do so, he has to unleash his own. Embracing his personal darkness both helps and hurts his cause: John’s confident he can kill the demon, but he’s drawn to—and distracted by—the carnage his quarry leaves in its wake. The demon also turns out to be a reluctant villain, motivated by emotions that make it feel more human to John than he does to himself.
My only real issue was that the supernatural element ultimately felt a little underplayed (and late; it doesn’t get introduced until several chapters in). John is shocked when he first sees the demon reveal its true form, but he doesn’t seem surprised that it exists. Even if this is because he lives with his own beast, I could have done with more of John researching tales of demons, looking to mythology for ways to defeat them, etc.
Oh, and it goes without saying that the story is super twisted. But if you liked Dexter or want to see a great example of how to connect—and complicate—a character’s inner and external goals, give I Am Not a Serial Killer a shot.
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