Sunday, April 1, 2012

I Hunt Killers (book) by Barry Lyga

[Since I just remembered what day it is, I feel this post update is necessary: This is not an April Fool's joke. I don't joke well. My job on this day is usually to fall for others' jokes.]

Release date: April 3, 2012

This is one of the ARCs I picked up at ALA Midwinter.

Synopsis:

Four years ago, Jasper "Jazz" Dent's father, Billy Dent, was arrested. Sheriff G. William Tanner figured out that Billy was a serial killer responsible for the deaths of 123 people (or 124, depending on how you counted). Billy considered Jazz his protege and taught him just about everything he knew.

Jazz, now 17, lives in fear that he will one day become just like his father. He knows how to identify "prospects," potential victims, he's an excellent liar and charmer, he doesn't see death and dead people the way others do, and his dad taught him a lot about killing people. He has a recurring dream, which might really be a memory, in which he is cutting a person.

Jazz knows no amount of good deeds he might do could prove that he won't become like Billy, because Billy did good deeds all the time, as a way of blending in. He also knows that having a friend and girlfriend doesn't prove he won't become like Billy, because there are examples of serial killers who formed attachments to certain people in their lives. All he can really do, he thinks, is look at local crimes from his unique criminal's perspective and lend the police a hand when possible. Not that the sheriff appreciates this - G. William thinks Jazz's job should be to act like a normal teenage boy.

Jazz becomes convinced that another serial killer has come to the small town of Lobo's Nod. With Howie, his hemophiliac best friend, at his side, Jazz gets a look at the first victim, police report, and crime scene (none of which G. William is happy about, after he finds out). G. William thinks Jazz just has serial killers on the brain, but when more bodies start showing up, it seems Jazz may be right.

Review:

If you're worried that Jazz becomes a YA version of Dexter, rest assured that, in this book at least (I'm assuming this is the start of a series), that's not the case. Dexter killed with no twinge of conscience, because he didn't have one, and his focus on criminals was more a reflection of his adoptive father's morals than his own. Jazz, on the other hand, worried all the time about what he might become. He was more than a little obsessed with serial killers, and he had thoughts about how easy it would be for him to kill someone, but he didn't actually kill anyone. Really, Jazz turned out remarkably well considering his life with his father and grandmother. I did worry, at first, that Jazz might become a killer, especially considering the thoughts he had about the first victim, but eventually I started to see all his worrying as a clear sign he wouldn't become like his father. I doubt his father ever worried or felt guilty about hurting other people.

When he wasn't worrying about his potential to become a killer, Jazz spent a lot of time trying to prove another serial killer had come to Lobo's Nod. Although I figured Jazz was probably right, had this been real life, rather than fiction, I would have been firmly on G. William's side – there really wasn't a whole  lot of evidence, in the beginning, that the first victim had been killed by a serial killer, and Jazz's obsession made it believable that he'd see serial killers where there were none.

I rolled my eyes a little at Jazz's initial investigative efforts, which came across to me as a slightly more morbid version of the stereotypical “boy detective.” I was glad that Jazz at least didn't turn out to be better than the police at even the basic levels of investigation. At one point fairly early on, for instance, Jazz found what he thought was an amazing bit of evidence and presented it to G. William as though he was giving him something the police probably would never have been able to find without his help...only to learn that the police already knew everything, and then some, that Jazz's find could have told them. I thought that moment helped the book feel more realistic, although G. William's later decision to invite Jazz to one of the crime scenes detracted from that feeling a bit.

Jazz does a few less than endearing things, like regularly drugging his grandmother (who is not the nicest of women, but still) and knowingly manipulating others, even, at times, his friend and girlfriend. However, even though I didn't entirely like Jazz, I didn't dislike him either. I felt sympathy for him, for how he was raised and what he'd been made to see, and for shouldering some of the blame for his father's victims' deaths because he never made a move to stop his father. G. William told him to live like a normal teenage boy, but that would have involved somehow erasing all the horrible things that happened during the first 13 years of his life. He couldn't unlearn what Billy taught him, and he had little control over how others viewed him. Attempts by reporters to get his side of the story and occasional visits by family members of his father's victims made it impossible for him to move on.

Jazz did have some really nice moments. My favorites usually involved his friend Howie. Howie's hemophilia meant he had to be careful, because the slightest bump could give him a horrible bruises. A little cut could cause him to bleed out. Howie's mother was overprotective, which was probably why Jazz, who treated Howie like anyone else (albeit with some limitations), probably appealed to Howie so much. One of the sweetest moments in the book, in my opinion, was the bit where it was revealed that Jazz agreed to get tattoos Howie would have gotten for himself, if it hadn't been for his hemophilia. It was a permanent and painful demonstration of affection, and I loved it. I enjoyed Jazz's relationship with Howie much more than I did his relationship with Connie. I thought it was fuller and better developed, which I guess makes sense when you consider that Jazz had only been dating Connie for a few years but had known Howie since he was little.

I was thinking about the book's level of gruesomeness, and I'm pretty sure that, while Lyga included many disturbing and/or gory details, the really awful stuff was never written about and described as it was happening. What I mean is, I don't think there were any detailed descriptions of killings as they were being done. Even so, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone would can't stand disturbing details and the occasional bit of goriness.

The book covered a whole range of horrible stuff. A couple of the new killer's victims were killed by an injection of drain cleaner, at least one of the victims was raped (not on-page - there was only a discussion of evidence rape had occurred), and all of the victims had fingers cut off (in one case, while she was still alive). Several characters readers got to see while alive were later killed, so the victims weren't all just random unfamiliar people. Billy Dent was a very creative killer who murdered a lot of people in varied enough ways that his kills were originally attributed to more than one serial killer. The different ways he killed and what he did with the bodies came up several times in the book. Also, those who have problems reading about animal cruelty will probably find one short passage, in which the specifics of what Billy did to Jazz's beloved pet dog are described, difficult to read.

I was a bit iffy about the first half of this book and felt it got stronger in the second half, particularly after Jazz's investigative efforts failed, spectacularly, to avert another death. After Connie told Jazz off for trying to turn her away from him with talk about what he might do to her (in her words, “Billying” her), I pretty much flew through the book. The ending reads like Lyga is planning to write another book starring Jazz. I hope he does. I'd love to see if/how Jazz manages to deal with his father and his father's effect on him.

Read-alikes:
  • Darkly Dreaming Dexter (book) by Jeff Lindsay; Dexter (live action TV series) - I've seen at least a couple blogs that compared this book to Jeff Lindsay's Dexter series. Dexter, at least in the books, is much less human in how he views the world than Jazz, however, and he most definitely does kill people. I'd recommend the Dexter TV series if you find that Book Dexter is a little too inhuman for your tastes. I've written about one of the later books in the series, as well as the second season of the TV series.
  • Slice of Cherry (book) by Dia Reeves - Fanny and Kit are the daughters of a man who was put in prison for torturing and killing people in the basement of their home. Kit and Fanny are both showing signs of following in their father's footsteps: Kit happily kills animals and people, while Fanny resists her urges and tries to get Kit to resist hers, out of fear that one or both of them will be caught. Then Fanny finds a place that will allow her and her sister to kill without getting caught. Those who liked the "child of a serial killer" setup might like this book. I have written about this book.
  • Ender's Game (book) by Orson Scott Card - In order to defend against alien invaders, government agencies send child geniuses off for military training at a special Battle School. Ender Wiggin is one such child. Those who liked Jazz may also like Ender, who seems to be a natural at the battling and killing that he's being taught but who isn't entirely comfortable with it all.
  • Assassin's Apprentice (book) by Robin Hobb - Fitz, the bastard son of a prince, is made the Royal Assassin's apprentice and is trained to carry out the king's plans. Those who'd like another book in which a boy is trained to do terrible things might want to try this.

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