I’ve heard a bunch of good things about Dan Wells’s John Cleaver series (a trilogy at the moment, consisting of I Am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster, and I Don’t Want to Kill You, but the ending of the last leaves an opening for more, should he want to write more), but I somehow didn’t expect them to be quite as strongly in the Young Adult category as they are. It’s a bold call, but it actually works pretty well.
The set-up here is that the first-person narrator of the series, John Wayne Cleaver, is a sociopath with all the usual traits of a serial killer in the making: pyromania, frequent bed-wetting, hurting animals. He’s well aware of this– in fact, he’s kind of obsessed with serial killers, the way other sixteen-year-olds are obsessed with cars or comic books or sports teams– and has made a set of rules for himself to prevent himself from giving in to his darker impulses. Things are going all right, but then somebody starts killing people in his sleepy Midwestern town, and when John discovers the killer’s supernatural nature, he comes to believe that he’s the only one who can stop it.
Novels that attempt to make sociopathic narrators sympathetic are not entirely new– Blackburn by Bradley Denton is probably my favorite, and Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory is another well-known example– but as I said, it’s kind of daring for a YA book. Because John is genuinely creepy in a lot of ways, and getting the reader to take his side is a tricky bit of work, particularly given what he does to save the day at the end of the first book.
At the same time, though, it ends up working surprisingly well in the YA context. A consistent problem that YA books have is that the narrators end up explaining high school social dynamics as if they were an alien or an anthropologist. Having the narrator be a sociopath with very little empathy both justifies these kinds of detailed descriptions and raises the tension in scenes of ordinary adolescent interaction. The scene where John faces down a bully by explaining his system of rules is priceless. And while the way he gets drawn into more popular social circles is a little implausible, the results are worth suspending disbelief for.
These are quick reads– John’s voice is very engaging (serial killers are often superficially charming, after all), and they’re only 200-ish pages each– and very well plotted. I did have the right idea about where the third one was headed, but Wells still managed to throw in some surprising twists. There’s also a satisfying plot arc to to three together; if it ends as a trilogy, that would be just fine. But if Wells wants to write more of these, I’ll happily buy and read them.