Dan Wells is a magician. Well, ok not really. He’s a writer, and over the course of three books he takes an unsympathetic/unlikeable character and makes you root for him. Its one of the hardest tricks in the fiction suite to do right–Severus Snape was an example of this done right– but seeing how effortlessly Dan pulls it off it may as well be magic.
The series, collectively titled the ‘John Cleaver’ books, follows the series’ narrator: a teenage sociopath who exhibits all the classic symptoms of a serial killer (pyromania, lack of empathy, and animal cruelty among others). John’s family owns the local morgue where John occasionally works, which set the basis for scenarios that exacerbate John’s serial killer tendencies. John is always in conflict with this inner nature, going so far as to establish rules to act ‘normal.’ In all three books he’s pushed to the breaking point, forced to abandon these rules to take on killers plaguing his home town.
The morgue becomes a major setting in the three novels, as John examines cadavers like a sociopathic modern day Sherlock Holmes to determine each killer’s modus operandi and emotional weaknesses. Indeed, John cites the famous detective’s saying: “ when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” in the book.
All the morgue scenes, including descriptions of the embalming process, are very realistic (or seem very realistic), which begs the question how Dan conducted the research for those scenes. But I digress. The serial killer facts and lore that John cites in his narrative grounds these books in reality, and helps to humanize the villains to the point that the reader can understand their motivations. These monsters are not caricatures or cardboard cut-outs. They are in a word: human.
The first book, I am Not a Serial Killer, which I reviewed here earlier, reads like a crime novel with horror elements, or a horror novel with crime elements depending on which way you look at it. I understand that some readers were put off by the horror in the first novel, but looking at the story arc over the trilogy, it was an essential element. Without giving too much away, John faces a supernatural adversary who engages John in a downright macabre cat and mouse chase.
Mr. Monster, the second book in the series, follows a format similar to Book 1 with respect to the horror tropes, but I Don’t Want to Kill You stands out as the best in the series, and as my personal favorite. It has (no pun intended) killer pacing; it doesn’t feel like a single scene is wasted or unnecessary, and despite a few questionable character motivations towards the end of the book, the main characters were well rounded. And where the first two books tended to emphasize the horror, book three’s focus was romance. But I hesitate to call it a horror/romance novel because those two elements are so disjointed and might give you an entirely wrong idea about the book. Instead let’s put it this way: it’s a horror novel where the romantic relationships are a significant part of the story. Despite the romance, there’s not exactly a happy ending, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it on those grounds alone.
After following this story through three novels to the last word of the last sentence my first thought was: “It can’t end now. There has to be more.” It’s perhaps the greatest testament to Dan’s skill as a writer is that he managed to turn a teenage sociopath into a likeable character. And there’s good news: although the third book ties up the story started in I am Not a Serial Killer, the ending hints at more stories. I’ll be first one to say it. More please.