Tor, 2009, 271 pages
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it.
He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.
He’s obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.
Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat---and to appreciate what that difference means.
Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.
Dan Wells’s debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that will keep you awake and then haunt your dreams.
How do you make a sociopathic teenager who's obsessed with serial killers and corpses, stalks the girl he's infatuated with and watches her through her bedroom window, and fantasizes about killing his own mother, a sympathetic protagonist?
Pit him against an adversary who's even worse.
The premise of this YA novel sounds very similar to Dexter, but I am basing this only on what little I know of the series from reading about it online. I have never read any of the Dexter books or seen the show. Like Dexter, John Wayne Cleaver (in a bit of unfortunate irony, his parents named him after the actor, not the serial killer) is a sociopath who tries to force himself to act like a responsible citizen. He studies serial killers obsessively so he can figure out how not to be one. And his mother is the town mortician, which means he gets to spend lots of time around dead bodies.
When a serial killer actually begins killing people in his town, John is excited. No, he's horrified. No, he's fascinated. And excited. No, no, that's wrong and bad! Poor John.
Saying anything more about the story would require spoilers, so suffice it to say that when John begins trying to hunt the killer, he finds out there are worse things than sociopaths.
This is actually quite a well-done tale, as John is a clever, unusual, and deeply disturbing protagonist. I am not entirely sure about his portrayal. At times, I was not convinced that he actually was a sociopath. He is obviously meant to be a literal case of The Sociopath Next Door, but as Martha Stout's book will tell you, true sociopaths aren't just callous and lacking in empathy, they literally cannot understand empathy, and thus are incapable of feeling guilt, shame, or sorrow for other people. A sociopath who forces himself to act "normally" (which many learn to do very well) does so only to blend in, not out of any sense of social responsibility or desire not to hurt people. Thus, I wasn't sure if the author's attempt to portray John as an "ethical sociopath" was a hint that John isn't really a sociopath, or just an indication that the author didn't really do his homework.
Either way, John is creepy enough to be convincing as a sociopath, while staying just this side of irredeemable... almost.
Again, I am not going to spoil it, but let's just say before the end of the book, John crosses the line in a big way.
Whether you find John sympathetic or not, he's a very interesting character. For a debut novel, and a YA one at that, it's pretty good and delivered more than its share of surprises. I thought John did benefit from a little too much author fiat -- several times he appears to be totally screwed (sometimes after making a serious error in judgment), and is saved from the consequences by dumb luck, or else he's able to talk his way out of the situation because all the adults just believe him. But nothing was so outrageously improbable that it broke the story for me. (Well, aside from [spoiler removed]...)
Verdict: A clever, twisty tale with a clever, twisted protagonist. John Wayne Cleaver is pretty darn likeable for a sociopath, but he is a sociopath. I liked I Am Not a Serial Killer enough (and am intrigued enough to see where the little sociopath goes from here) that I will check out the next book in the series.