The inside of the young man's head is fascinating and often horrible, as is the world he inhabits, where a serial killer has started murdering men at random and stealing parts of their bodies. This is the first book I've read by Mr. Wells and I have to say, he's a damn good writer. The pages just kept turning, even during passages so graphic, bloody and morally revolting that part of me wanted to turn away from them. None of the tough-to-read stuff is there just for shock value, though, and it all does a pretty good job of raising a compelling question.
John is a person who is emotionally detached and often thinks terrible, bloody thoughts, but he has a set of rules he follows to keep from hurting anyone and his actions throughout the novel are almost always heroic. If we judge him strictly by his actions, he is a hero, no doubt about it. So does it matter that he was thinking about doing terrible things to those around him for large chunks of the time he spent saving them from another killer? As warped as John may be, his actions and how hard he is on himself for every dark thought he has makes him an easy guy to root for. He's also a clever opponent for his demonic, serial killer nemesis, who turns out to be closer to John than he at first suspects. The battle of wits between John and his supernatural quarry is one of many well-drawn aspects of this fast paced read.
As disturbing as the book is, I Am Not A Serial Killer isn't unnecessarily gory. Many of the actual killings happen "off page", so to speak, although Mr. Wells obviously had a great time vividly describing the state the corpses are found in. The first murder that happens before John's very eyes is integral to helping him realize that this is no ordinary killer he's been tracking, and this scene absolutely hums with suspense.
John's world is fleshed out by a supporting cast of believable and sympathetic characters, such as his mom and her twin sister, Margaret, who run a mortuary together, and reluctantly agree to let John help out, since he seems to find some peace in the task. John also has exactly one close friend named Max, an obnoxious and oblivious sort who John maintains close contact with merely because "normal" people are supposed to have friends. Then there's John's therapist, Dr. Neblin, who believes in John's goodness in spite of his diagnosis and responds to John's idiosyncrasies with good humor. Other characters are introduced in memorable ways and then don't get to actually do much in the rest of the book, which left me a little thrown until I realized that I Am Not A Serial Killer is only the first book in a continuing series. I immediately sought out the second book, Mr. Monster when I discovered this happy news, so Mr. Wells obviously succeeded in drawing me in and making me excited to see what comes next. So far, the second part is quite good as well, but that's an article for another day.
Overall, I Am Not A Serial Killer is a full throttle tale of a bloody game of cat and mouse between two monsters. One of them is a little more human than the other, but which one that is sometimes becomes a matter for serious consideration. At only 272 pages, it could have been just a little longer without losing any of its tautness. Still, as an opening volley in an ongoing saga, it's spectacularly effective, generally well-written and definitely whets the appetite for more. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.
I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells - Tor Books (2010) - Hardback - 272 pgs - ISBN 9780765322470
Mr. Monster by Dan Wells - Tor Books (2010) - Hardback - 288 pgs - ISBN 076532248x