I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
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Mystery, 368 pages
Published April 3rd 2012 by Little, Brown BYR
There are always times when you think the concept of a book is so interesting and potentially awesome that you're sure you're going to be let down when you read it. It's some little failsafe in our brains, preparing us for disappointment because we're pretty sure we're going to be let down. And then, when that doesn't happen, and we actually get what we are hoping for - there's this moment of shock. It's a little thrilling, actually. And it's all the more special for being rare.
Thankfully - for me, at least - I Hunt Killers delivers one of those moments.
Barry Lyga gave me exactly what I was looking for. The Nature vs. Nurture debate is one of the most interesting to me, and in a story like this, where a boy is essentially being groomed to be the world's finest Serial Killer Extraordinaire by his, um - talented? - father, Nature vs. Nurture takes center stage. Jazz's father has been in jail for 4 years by the time the book opens, but Jazz can't really get out from under his shadow. He's been programmed to see the weaknesses in people, and his own superiority, and then to use that. Being in his head, the reader gets to see what a struggle it is for Jazz to have any kind of normalcy. He clings to the things that make him human because he's terrified that he's a ticking timebomb - he's just waiting for something to set him off. He tries so hard to remind himself to be normal, because he's so terrified that he's not. It's like N.vs.N. in a petri dish - a one-man psychological experiment in whether we really have any control over who we become.
Psychologically, this book could not have been any more what I wanted it to be. It was exactly what I was hoping for, unsettling and a little heartbreaking, fascinating and creepy. The doubt (both on Jazz's part and on the reader's, for Jazz) was just perfect. The way Jazz pushes people away and tests them to see if they'll finally give up on him - it's almost like a part of him is waiting for someone to give him permission. For someone important to him to show that they think he's hopeless, so that he can finally let go of the tension and the burden of trying not to be his dad, and just give in to what he perceives to be inevitable. He's so hyper-aware of everything, every advantage and disadvantage. Jazz, and the narration, was knowingly calculating, which is chilling on its own, but what's great is that it chills Jazz too - but not enough to stop him from doing what has to be done.
The tone, too, was exactly what I wanted. It's darkly humorous at times, and other times just plain dark, but it's prevented from being completely bleak by the human connections in Jazz's life. It's through them that you know Jazz isn't a lost-cause, because they see the humanity in Jazz that he's tortured himself into pretending doesn't exist. Through them, you know he has the potential to be loving, to be a good person, and you see the burdens he places on himself - and all the while, that good portion of his life is being constantly undermined by Jazz's impressions of himself and his fear that any good he does, any love he feels, is just an act. The blind his inner serial killer hides behind. It's fascinating.
And interlaced with all of this, there are snippets of things Jazz saw or did with his father, as well as snippets of narration from the current Lobo's Nod serial killer, which help escalate the tension and show what Jazz really is up against and why he's so haunted. The way these scenes from his past creep up on him and never let him have peace were a really nice layer to the story. All of it - the killer's obsession and plotting, Jazz's understanding of the horrors and his own calculation, his grandmother's craziness and his father's sociopathic glee - all of that combines to make it a really gripping read. And though it's gruesome, it's never gratuitous. Lyga eschews continual bloodbaths and cheap startles in favor of a layered psychological thriller that is far more chilling as a result.
Don't forget to check out my interview with Barry, and while you're there, make sure to enter to win a copy of I Hunt Killers for yourself!!