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Book Review: DEAR KILLER by Katherine Ewell

The zeitgeist comes in waves, lapping at the shores of our collective consciousness like the Pacific post-Fukushima. And just as with that natural disaster, some new detritus washes up with the waves each time: first it was zombies, then it was vampires, then it was a dystopian future with televised teen fights to the death. Witches are coming too, but for a break from the teen paranormal, here comes a teen serial killer.

DearKillerBodyDear Killer is the debut novel from Katherine Ewell, who – just to make you feel useless – wrote it when she was 17. The killer is Kit, also 17, and – just to make you feel more useless – has killed over 50 people using a method the baffled Scotland Yard police force has dubbed “perfect.” She started killing when she was 9, trained by her mother, an erstwhile Perfect Killer herself. Like John Muir padding softly through the Redwoods, they employ “leave no trace” practices, thus the long, illustrious spree spanning all these years.

Operating in a world of strict moral relativism (as Kit describes beautifully in her high school Philosophy class, duh), Kit believes that nothing is right and nothing is wrong. She takes requests, making her essentially the Bar Mitzvah DJ of murder. Letters and payment are to be left in a “mailbox” behind a loose tile in a restaurant bathroom. Kit checks the mail every so often, picking and choosing from requests that range from “kill my girlfriend” to “kill my boyfriend.” Ever the arbiter of vigilante justice, Kit decides who shall live and who shall die, pockets the fee, then conspires to get into her victims’ homes and strangles them to death. Or sometimes kicks their faces in, if necessary.

Additionally, she befriends Alex, the smoldering 30-something in charge of the Perfect Killer case at Scotland Yard. He’s investigating her latest crime scene, and she injects herself into the case, dropping hints, and becoming an invaluable consultant. From there it all falls apart, as Kit starts to question her wildly spinning moral compass: who deserves to live, who deserves to die, why she is making the decisions.

A teen serial killer with a knack for police work is an interesting conceit, like a young Dexter or an evil Veronica Mars. But Kit is the stuff of nervous hormonal teenage daydreams: She’s not fully formed, she shakes with unjustified self-importance, and she just won’t shut up. Her story drones on in interminable first person, dripping with high school ethics class musings and the insight of someone who maybe spent a few minutes on the Nietzsche Wikipedia page. Not to mention, despite her apparent 50-kill track record, Kit’s not all that good at what she does. Unless we can chalk up her murderous missteps to a newfound tear in her moral code.

So if you were feeling bad about having contributed less to the cultural canon than a 17 year-old, cool it. Dear Killer is hardly A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which Dave Eggers published at like, 30, so you’re fine.

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