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Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

Stephen King's House in Bangor, Maine

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Even when an author makes a choice that doesn’t sit well with the individual reader, when a book is written well, perceived flaws are easily forgiven. Dan Well’s debut novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a solid writer. From the first chapter, I knew I was going to like this book and I could see why his agent and publisher were grabbed immediately.

Wells has done his research so well, you’re convinced he’s been hanging out in mortuaries a long time. He details the embalming process is grisly, convincing detail. He’s acquainted himself well with how a sociopath thinks. I wish Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter books, understood serial killers so well. (While the Showtime series, Dexter, is superb, the books are get progressively worse.)

When Wells’s tale threatened to go off the rails for me, he kept me riveted with realistic detail. I’m not going to spoil the story for you. I will say that Wells makes a daring choice by sliding a gritty portrayal of a young sociopath into a supernatural story. Had he kept his horror altogether in reality, it would be In Cold Blood for the juvenile set. I got antsy about the supernatural turn the story took, but Wells controlled his story by going back to the realistic context.

Reality is what makes horror so effective. It’s viruses escaping from government labs. It’s the threats that lurk behind every corner which end at a police station, a hospital or a morgue. Think of Stephen King’s portrayal of big bad things happening in tiny, ordinary towns in Maine. What makes effective horror so effective is that it occurs in such ordinary contexts. That’s why Wells’s choice to opt for the supernatural is daring. Each time he went out to the edge of reality, he compensated by getting right back to a realistic context.

The flaws I mentioned? Near the end, vague explanations are made to police that are skimmed over. I’m not even clear what explanations were offered so alibis seemed underwritten. (If Wells had omitted that scene, the denouement would have been shorter, as well.) I didn’t buy that part and would have preferred that the police not be brought in at all. Unless you’re writing a police procedural, I find bringing police into thrillers is problematic. Generally, when the forces for order show up, they either chase the bad guys away and order comes closer to being restored. That’s why so many effective horror stories occur in remote places where the outside world is cut off, the bridge is out and civilian protagonists have to rely on their own wits and tendons. (In my own stories, cops are never a factor. Their role is to show up after all the real action is over. The people they tend to catch are standing over their spouse holding a butcher knife and covered in blood. In reality, there’s a lot less drama after the authorities get involved.) 

However, despite these quibbles, Wells ends his story perfectly. It could be the beginning of a series. The protagonist’s voice is so authentic, dangerous and vulnerable at the same time, I’m looking forward to reading more of Mr. Wells’s work.

Want to know more about the Dan Wells? Go to http://www.fearfulsymmetry.net/.

Filed under: book reviews, Horror, writing tips, , , ,

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