Thursday, August 16, 2012

You Should Be Reading: Dan Wells

I don't usually read Young Adult fiction. I occasionally will check out something that has captured some level of zeitgeist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and  Percy Jackson have a space on my shelves. I hope to  recommend these to my children when they are old enough to start reading these kinds of books. Dan Wells has earned a place on the shelf with Rowling, Collins, and Riordan with his fantastic John Wayne Cleaver novels, though I will probably wait until after Rowling and Riordan are familiar names to my children before I introduce them to young John Cleaver.

John Wayne Cleaver has all of the characteristics of a serial killer, and he knows it. He is an expert on the subject. Even his name seems to condemn him to a predetermined fate. His therapist has diagnosed him as a sociopath, and John now lives by a set of rules designed to keep his darker urges at bay. When a killer begins using his small town as a killing ground, John's macabre fascination and the urge of the hunt send him into conflict with just the kind of monster who John seems destined to become.

If this immediately makes you think of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter series, you aren't alone. But John Cleaver isn't Dexter Morgan any more than Dumbledore is Gandalf. Despite the similarities at the surface of the concept, Wells makes it something all his own with the unique, first person voice of his protagonist. The addition of a twist part way through the book this story steps even farther away from Lindsay's wheelhouse.

The main difference between John Cleaver and Dexter Morgan is that while Dexter is a serial killer, albeit one who only kills the guilty, John is determined not to give into his urges. While those who have read beyond the first novel of Wells' series might call that a gross oversimplification, there more concrete differences. We must also consider the difference between the code of conduct that each character follows. Dexter's rules stem from his desire not to be discovered for the monster that he is. John's rules are designed to prevent him from becoming the monster he fears he will eventually become. Also unlike Dexter, John doesn't always succeed in following his code. Like any teen-aged boy, John has to test his limits and Well's wisely chooses to show the consequences to these lapses in judgement. Whether it is continuing to assist in the family-mortuary business, allowing himself to pursue his crush, or putting himself on a collision course with an actual killer, John's flirtations with his darker impulses always complicate matters for our young protagonist.

Through his attempts to stave off his inner monster, we are introduced to a stable of interesting characters who only serve to highlight the problems John's condition causes. By allowing us to view John's fractured relationship with his mother and sister, his awkward courting of his crush, to his tactical choice of a best friend, Wells manages to create a character that is at the same time alien to readers while keeping a him likable and sympathetic narrator. John's lack of empathy coupled with his awareness that he needs to at least try to hide his lack of feelings from everyone around him, makes the young killer in the making a compelling character that readers want to see succeed.

While initially I Am Not A Serial Killer seem like a crime novel, Well's takes us into genre territory by introducing a twist when the killer's identity is revealed. There is not much exposition about the specifics of the sudden game changing revelation, but I think that serves the story well. Teenage killers in waiting, are probably not prone to playing twenty questions with their prey, and John is no exception. What questions he does have prove hard to answer, and Wells feeds the information to us slowly over the course of the series. It keeps the narration honest even if it may frustrate some readers.

While no slouch in the pacing and plot categories, it's Well's gift for character and the uniqueness of John's narrative voice that propels  I Am Not A Serial Killer and it's sequels into the ranks of books that I think you should be reading, young adult classification or not.

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