Thursday, May 02, 2013

I Hunt Killers, A Not So YA Young Adult Thriller

As a long time reader of mysteries and thrillers, it can be hard for new authors to hook me.  There are so many series that I love, from Jonathan Kellerman and his wife Faye, to Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, and Dana Stabenow.  I've read various iterations of the female private eye, the mystery-solving psychiatrist, or the gruff police detective, and it is rare that an author brings anything truly new to the table.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered a something novel and, frankly, really fascinating in a young adult thriller.

I Hunt Killers is the first novel by Barry Lyga, and I discovered it while attending a reading conference with my best friend.  As good as the workshop sessions are, the best part of the conference for me is the exhibit hall.  It is full of books and people (mostly teachers) who love books, milling around, flipping through pages, sometimes getting so engrossed that you realize you've already missed that session you were planning to go to.  I discovered this title at a booth for a small, local bookseller that deals primarily with schools.  It was hard to miss...the cover art if pretty striking and frankly I was a little surprised to find it with the other young adult books.  But after reading the blurb my friend and I both decided that we had to have it.  The premise that Lyga puts out is pretty simple, but ripe with possibilities.  The main characters, Jazz, is the son of a notorious serial killer.  Raised in the "family business", Jazz is now 17.  His father has been in prison for four years, and on top of the normal travails of adolescence, Jazz is trying to figure out whether he has become the things his father always wanted him to be-a sociopath.  When murders start happening in his hometown, murders that are eerily similar to his father's, he gets drawn into the investigation, and realizes that his horrific upbringing makes him uniquely qualified to help the police.  Jazz doesn't need some fancy profiling course from Quanitco-he finds he can think like a serial killer.  While this is a pretty great skill for solving the murders, it raises a whole host of questions for Jazz about his own identity, and his own capacity for violence.

I find this whole idea of the child of a serial killer becoming a hunter of serial killers fascinating.  I think that one of the reasons I read books about fictional serial killers, or watch documentaries about real-life ones, is because I want to figure out what it is that creates these human monsters.  As a person who believes people are inherently good, I want to know what went wrong along the way that created personalities with no remorse, empathy, or basic human emotion.  Brain research is coming up with clues as to what makes a person become this very specific kind of killer, but so far there is nothing definitive.  At the very root of Jazz's story is the while nature/nurture debate.  How much of what we become is a result of our genetic make-up, and how much is the environment we grow-up in?  And what about free will?  Increasingly, the answer is that what makes us who we are is neither one nor the other, but both/and.  Our genetic make-up may predispose us towards a certain path, but the interaction between that and our environment is too complex and sophisticated to tease out easily.  Reading the book, I got the strong sense that Jazz is a moral person, but when he questions himself, as a reader I found myself doing the same thing.

This book was classified as young adult by the booksellers, and I have found it on young adult reading lists since.  The main characters is a teenager, which is often a pretty good indicator that the book was written for that age group.  But the book is pretty gory.  Violent acts are described in some detail, and there is a sinister air about the while story.  While it was an easy read, I was completely drawn into the story, and I didn't feel any of the disconnect that I sometimes feel when I read young adult books.  When an adult reads books meant for a younger audience, sometimes the connection that we feel with the story or the characters is more of a remembered connection than an authentically current one, if that makes sense.  Reading a book about first loves brings back my own, but I don't have the same emotional response to it I would have had 25 years ago.  But with this book I was completely engaged the whole time, not just in the plot, which is in the end is fairly formulaic (it is essentially a procedural, after all)., but with Jazz as a character and the emotional roller-coaster he is on.  Perhaps what makes this story universal is that the journey of self-discovery and the creation of identity doesn't end in adolescence, and I suspect (and hope) that it continues as long as we live.  We might not be wrestling with whether or not we are a sociopath, but I think that each of us wrestles daily with being the best person we can be, which created a connection between Jazz and myself as the reader.

This is the first book in a series, which I could tell would be the case about half-way through the book.  I've already bought the second, Game, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Jazz's journey takes him-and the reader-next.


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