Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Faith, Love, and Serial Killers: Dan Wells' I Don't Want to Kill You

I recently read the third of Dan Wells' John Cleaver mysteries, I Don't Want to Kill You. It was so good I wanted to share my thoughts at more length than my quick review on Goodreads. Beware, this is a spoiler-heavy review.

Picking up the story shortly after Mr. Monster ended, I Don't Want to Kill You finds John anticipating the arrival of Nobody, the demon he called at the end of that book. He's done the demon tracking-hunting-slaying thing twice now, so he must be an expert, right?

Except Nobody hasn't shown her face yet, and John is getting antsy. Then the infamous serial killer the Handyman migrates from Georgia to North Dakota, and John thinks maybe Nobody is the Handyman. Either that, or she is working with the Handyman, using one of her demon compatriots to distract John from his mission: killing her and the other demons like her.

Not only is John's demon hunting not going quite as planned, but his social life (never the best, due to the whole sociopathy issue) is shifting in big ways. His next door neighbor and longtime obsession (crush is too emotive a word for John), Brooke, can't be near him because she still sees Mr. Monster lurking beneath the skin. John hasn't spoken to his best friend, Max, in the months since he faced down Forman, the demon from book two. To top it all off, Marci Jensen, the sheriff's daughter and local popular girl, asks John out on a date!

All of this sets the stage for Wells' most emotional John Cleaver story yet. While the first two books had a strong emotional current despite John's lack of emotional connection, I Don't Want to Kill You is unique because one of the central plotlines focuses on John's relationship with Marci and his slow but stunning realization that he shares a true emotional connection with her, one based on positive emotions like love rather than the anger and fear which have been his only source of connection in the past. Unfortunately for John, he doesn't realize this fully until it is too late and Marci has become one of Nobody's victims.

Nobody's modus operandi dovetails into one of the other themes in the book. Nobody, envious of the lives other people live, moves from person to person searching for the perfect life -- from body to relationships to personality. When she decides that her current body isn't cutting it, she forces the person she inhabits to commit suicide, often with little or no prior indication that the person might be suicidal. Eventually, she takes over Brooke's body, putting John in a moral dilemma: does he kill Nobody, and in doing so kill Brooke as well? Or does he allow Nobody the fantasy she's created of the two of them hunting down the rest of the demons, the perfect couple for the rest of John's life? The question he faces here goes back to the heart of his moral debate from the first two books: does killing the demons, and the bodies they inhabit, make him no better than they are? He discusses the morality of these killings in a hypothetical way with a local priest, in whom he confides as the only other person in town (aside from John's mom) to believe that demons exist. They debate whether killing these people is right or wrong -- and the priest challenges John's own justification of his actions.

Although John does eventually decide that Nobody must die in order to stop her from killing more people, he chooses not to kill the Handyman -- who is neither demon nor in league with demons. The Handyman is just another human being, albeit one who kills those he thinks are leading the community down sinful roads. When faced with this truth, John refuses to kill the Handyman. He's already killed Crowley and Forman, and he refuses to make this third kill, the one that would make him truly a serial killer.

John's final confrontation with Nobody brings the book around to love again, but this time it's not romantic love. John overcomes his affection/obsession for Brooke in order to preserve the greater good, the saving of all of Nobody's future victims. Although he tries to hide the reality of Brooke's possession and his plans to end Nobody's spree, his mom knows him better than that. She follows him to the secluded spot by the lake where he plans to kill Nobody, and when Nobody turns out to be stronger and cleverer than John anticipated, his mom intervenes. She convinces Nobody that Brooke isn't the person she should inhabit, nor -- as Nobody assumes -- is John. Brooke doesn't love John; John doesn't even love himself. But his mom loves him unconditionally. This revelation sends Nobody swirling into her body, only for her to throw them both into the death trap that is John's burning car.

Although Wells has continued the series since publishing I Don't Want to Kill You, it originally stood as the end of John's story, and it is a fitting end. He and Brooke finally connect, he realizes that he can connect emotionally with others, and he faces the hardest trial yet in his growing war with the demons. This book pack an emotional punch, and it put me through such a wringer at the end that I had to take a break from heavy fiction and read something light and middle grade to cleanse my mind for a bit. This book is a fitting close to the first John Cleaver trilogy and, while it ends the story, it leaves the plot open enough for the next set of books. My only real quibble with the book is a minor one: at one point, John says he's been diagnosed as a sociopath, although the first book stated very clearly that he was too young to be diagnosed, and there wasn't enough time between the books for him to have aged up that much. Aside from that, this was the best book in the series. It pulled all the right rugs out from under John's feet and hit him and the readers with some perfect emotional punches. I'm looking forward to reading what comes next (though maybe not just yet).

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