I Hunt Killers (by Barry Lyga)

20 05 2012

Barry Lyga is on the list. Barry Lyga could be writing his grocery list, and I’d read it, so I Hunt Killers was also on the ‘most anticipated ‘ list of 2012, especially since the cat likes serial killers likes the next cat.  But truth be told, I Hunt Killers feels like an ‘in-between’ book: it’s definitely great fun while it lasts, but it doesn’t actually make you linger like Fanboy or Hero Type did.

Jasper ‘Jazz’ Dent was raised by the world’s most shocking serial killer – his father – who taught and groomed Jazz so he could become a worthy successor. When “Dear Old Dad” is finally caught and safely behind bars,  Jazz has to try and lead a normal life and prove that he is not his father. Like any ordinary teenager, he has a girlfriend, participates in school activities such as the school play (The Crucible!), has a best friend Howie (who is a hemophiliac…)… Trying to escape foster care (his mom is dead – casualty of dear old dad?), he lives with his crazy almost senile grandmother. The book actually starts when the body of a woman is found dead in a field with some fingers missing.  Jazz immediately realizes that another serial killer is running rampant in his small town of Lobo’s Nod. But because he can’t get the local Sheriff – G. William – to agree with him, he does his own little investigation, which of course is going to make him look suspicious. Most of all, though, he does this to prove to the world and himself that even though he knows how a serial killer thinks, he is not  like “Dear Old Dad”.

When you are raised by a serial killer, I’m sure you have issues.  Jazz has them, but other than that Jazz is a surprisingly “normal” YA character trying to figure out whether his past determines his future.  I Hunt Killers shows Jazz at his most vulnerable:  struggling with his past, his present desires and questioning his feelings every step of the way. Luckily there are a few people who can help Jazz with this: best friend Howie and girlfriend Connie.

And, when you write a serial killer book, there are a few options at your disposal. You can decide to gross everyone out by writing gruesome and extremely detailed descriptions, sort of like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw book version. The chance of that happening in a YA book is rather slim, though. I haven’t actually encountered a YA book that does just that. Plus, you’d probably end up alienating too many readers. Or, there’s the psychological horror option, like e.g. Silence of the Lambs, which manages to be a lot more menacing than any Saw movie ever could be. One of the creepiest scenes in television in this regard, is the one in which ‘Dutch’ kills a cat in Episode 11 of The Shield’s Season 3…to see how it feels to kill another living being. I Hunt Killers never reaches that level of darkness, which is a bit unfortunate, since a boy with the legacy of the greatest serial killer of almost all times, could have led to some serious psychologically disturbing behavior. Lyga on the other hand, doesn’t really take the Silence of the Lambs route in I Hunt Killers, either, but opts for route # 3: yes, there are definite gruesome acts (which you never actually *see*, because it should appeal to a broad audience), some serious creepy thoughts, but always with a huge twist of dark humor.  Most obvious reference here is of course Dexter. And yes, I Hunt Killers is definitely Dexter for teens.

Plot-wise I Hunt Killers is actually fairly predictable, although the end of the book feels a bit too forced for its own good and actually defies one of the prime facts about serial killers (which Jazz also even mentions!): serial killers don’t play well with others. I don’t buy it, and it leaves the door way too open for a sequel.

As a YA book, Jazz is an interesting albeit not really standout YA character, with quite some crossover appeal. As a serial killer book, I Hunt Killers falls between the cracks of murder mystery and psychological horror and takes the more self-gratifying route, making it into Dexter-lite. As a Barry Lyga book, it’s a bit disappointing. Yes it’s extremely fast-paced, and Lyga can draw in a reader like the best of them. So I Hunt Killers is always entertaining and fun to read, for sure (OK, so fun inasmuch as reading about serial killers and their offspring can be considered fun), but this is Barry Lyga we’re talking about, and don’t want any Dexter-lite, I want the real Barry Lyga to stand up now, and write me some Barry Lyga!

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