Book Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer

We throw around clinical diagnoses as insults often, don’t we? Thank goodness, the “r” word has left the general lexicon since I was in middle school in the early 00’s, but we still over-use mental health terms when we really mean something more mundane. Your organized friend has OCD, and your spontaneous friend has ADHD. Behavior we don’t like is ‘psychotic’ or ‘pathological.’ All fears are phobias. As I write this in 2023, the latest and greatest exaggeration in this way to catch cultural fire is to call every lie ‘gaslighting.’ 

Now, I get it. I don’t want you to change if you use these terms, everyone knows what you mean, in context. Hyperbole is a legitimate rhetorical device. I just want to highlight the way we throw around psychological language without a second thought. However, there is one term you don’t usually hear thrown around so casually. It’s a word that signals deep resentment, or inexplicably cruel behavior. That word? Sociopath. 

Not to go all high-school-valedictory-speech on this blog, but it’s worth defining, just to get on the same page. Doctors call the mental health disorder formerly known as sociopathy antisocial personality disorder. It can, without treatment, manifest as a habitual and pervasive disregard for or violation of the rights and considerations of others without remorse. That ‘without remorse’ part is key. People with ASPD often have difficulty recognizing emotions in other people. Without the ability to imagine the inner lives of others, they experience challenges thinking of, and therefore, sometimes, treating others as fully conscious, valuable beings.

This intro is going long. This book is told from the perspective of John Cleaver, a teenage sociopath. 

Content Warning: Violence, frank discussion of mental illness, disturbing mental imagery. 

The Basics: 

Title: I Am Not A Serial Killer
Author: Dan Wells
Genre: Horror, mystery, psychological thriller
Published: Tor, 2010

Photo by Martin Lopez on

Spoiler-Free Summary: 

John Cleaver is a teenager just entering high school in a one-stoplight town. He realizes at an early age that he is not like other people, and those oddities are key markers shared by 95% of serial killers. In response, he does two things. First, he sets rules for himself, boundaries, far away from any social line he might cross. Second, he reads obsessively about serial killers, to learn what to avoid. Nobody outside the FBI knows more about murder than John Cleaver. 

If that wasn’t enough, he works at the family business as an undertaker. Clearly, he is set up for success entering high school. 

A string of murders shocks his small town. The precision and brutality of these killings draws John in like a moth to flame. He follows the case obsessively, and when the story runs cold, he begins to investigate on his own. The clues grow increasingly bizarre in this unexpected, twisty, mystery. 

Why You Will Love This Book: 

Told hauntingly from John’s perspective, the heart of I Am Not… is the inner turmoil John experiences as investigating this case tears down the wall between him and his inner monster brick. By. Brick. Can he grow so intimate with crime scenes, unlock his carefully suppressed stalking tendencies, and apply his encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers without succumbing to the beast that rages in his heart? If you want a nuanced, sympathetic profile of a haunting character with a supernatural twist, check out I Am Not A Serial Killer

Where Can You Learn More: 

Dan Wells is 25% of the team over at Writing Excuses, so give him a listen there. Check out his backlist of adult and middle-grade fantasy novels here. 

Happy Reading, folks. 

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