Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: "I Am Not a Serial Killer"

My friend Daryl got me into the Writing Excuses podcast in the fall and I've been listening to the podcast a lot, typically when I'm on the elliptical at the gym.

In one podcast, the podcasters discuss the novel I Am Not A Serial Killer, a book written by one of them whose protagonist is a clinically-sociopathic teenager who works in a funeral home.  I found that character concept interesting and decided to see if my local library had it. They did, so now it's time for the review...

It's a good book.  Dan Wells does a good job developing the protagonist John Cleaver, in particular the way he fulfills the MacDonald Triad.

(Bed-wetting, cruelty to animals, and fascination with fire.  An extraordinarily high percentage of people who have these three characteristics at the same time become serial killers.)

Although the bed-wetting aspect of Cleaver isn't touched on to any great degree, the cruelty to animals and pyromania are.  As a child, Cleaver apparently tortured and killed groundhogs caught in traps and he tells his psychiatrist that to him, this was like playing with Legos.  This explicates Cleaver's lack of empathy--he doesn't even seem aware the animals are suffering at all.  The pyromania is described really well, in passages in which Cleaver waxes eloquently about how beautiful fire is and how it could be considered a living thing using the scientific definition for life, since among other things, it consumes fuel, leaves waste (ash), and reproduces (by burning).

One particularly memorable scene takes place at a school dance, where a bully named Rob Anders harasses him.  To get rid of him, Cleaver tells him that in order to control his darker impulses, he says nice things about people who make him angry.  He compliments the bully, then describes how thanks to his sociopathy, Anders is nothing more to him than a cardboard box.  However, cardboard boxes sometimes have interesting things inside them and he want to cut Anders open in several places to see what's inside.  However, because he doesn't want to be a killer, he has made a rule that every person he wants to cut open, he compliments them.

"That's why I say, Rob Anders of 232 Carnation Street, that you are a great guy."

Guess who runs away terrified and later has nightmares, to the point Cleaver's psychiatrist reprimands him?  I wonder if I should join TVTropes and add this to the entry, if there is one, under "Crowning Moment of Awesome."  Cleaver is this nerdy, physically-unimposing little guy, but he psychologically breaks a guy who I have the impression is bigger and stronger than he is and has been a bully since the third grade.

I just tried to request the sequel, Mr. Monster, which looks promising.  According to what I've read about it, it continues the character arc Cleaver began in the first novel when he had to overcome the code he developed to prevent himself from becoming a serial killer in order to protect his town from a demon.  Unfortunately, I can't request it right now (probably because it's new), so it'll be awhile before I can read it.

Something I've noticed is there is a similarity between Cleaver and Dexter Morgan, the clinically-psychopathic protagonist of the books and the Showtime TV series that bear his name.  Cleaver personifies his dark side, calling it "Mr. Monster" like how Dexter calls his "The Dark Passenger."  Furthermore, both of them have personal codes they live by to keep themselves out of trouble, although Cleaver seeks to repress his violent urges entirely (his sole outlet being working with bodies at the mortuary) and Dexter just channels them (by preying exclusively on killers who have escaped justice).

Although the book is pretty interesting and well-done, given the subject matter, I imagine it's not everybody's cup of tea and it is rather slow due to the fact it's primarily a mystery novel.  I'd give it 8 out of 10.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, I just received Mr. Monster from Amazon. If you're willing to either read it quickly (so I can get it back to read it) or wait a couple of weeks until I finish it, you're welcome to borrow it. :) -- Gary from the Lawrenceville Sci-fi Critique Group