Review: Game

Game by Barry Lyga. Sequel to I Hunt Killers. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In I Hunt Killers, Jazz helped capture a serial killer. It was his father, the infamous serial killer Billy Dent, who taught Jazz the ways of killing, not thinking for a moment that Jazz would decide to help the police rather than continue in Dear Old Dad’s line of work.

Jazz is trying to deal with the fallout from I Hunt Killers when the New York Police Department shows up on his doorstep, asking the seventeen year old to use his unique skills to help them catch the Hat-Dog Killer.

Jazz caught the Impressionist because he was a serial killer imitating Billy Dent’s crimes, under the guidance of Billy Dent. The Hat-Dog Killer started killing before Billy escaped from prison; with no connection to Billy’s crimes, can Jazz help?

Turns out, Jazz can. His girlfriend Connie insists on not being left behind; his best friend Howie stays behind to help care for Jazz’s grandmother. And turns out, Dear Old Dad is also in New York….

Start reading. And then lock and double lock your doors.

The Good: Needless to say, you should read I Hunt Killers first. Done? Good.

Moving the mystery to New York City is smart: first of all, just how many serial killers can Lobo’s Nod have? Plus, Billy Dent is too smart to return to his hometown. Or, rather — Billy Dent has too much unfinished business. He has other things to do….

But this isn’t about Billy, is it? Because the Hat-Dog Killer started while Billy was still in prison. Because they’ve found DNA on the victims and it doesn’t match Billy’s. No, the Hat-Dog Killer is a new killer for Jazz to hunt, with the help of Connie and Howie.

Let me just say: the hard part of any teen mystery is why is it a teen investigating? Game‘s solution, that only Jazz has been trained from birth by a serial killer, is simple and chilling at the same time. Also, with Mom dead (body never found, but it’s assumed she’s one of Billy’s many victims), Dear Old Dad an escaped convict, Gramma suffering from dementia (and just general racist meanness), there’s no one telling Jazz “no”. Now, there are people telling his friends “no” so their need to be some creative solutions there to the “why are their parents letting them investigate serial killers” problem.

Let me also say: I think that Connie’s and Howie’s being friends with Jazz, and their involvement in the capture of the Impressionist, leaves them a bit over-confident and under-afraid of what they are getting involved in. It’s one thing when the mystery happens in your back yard; it’s another when you go to find it. I find their actions and motivations believable, but I still wanted to sit them down and say WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?

Connie; another good thing about this series is the diversity in the characters. Jazz is white; his girlfriend is black. This is both just a part of who they are, but also an interesting plot point because, see, Billy Dent killed plenty of women but never one who was black. Is Jazz attracted to Connie because she is “safe” since she doesn’t look like any of Dear Old Dad’s kills? Do Connie’s parents dislike Jazz because he is white, or because he is the son of Billy Dent?

One more thing: yes, the murders are nasty stuff, but it’s nasty stuff described in a line or a paragraph. It doesn’t go on for pages and pages, like some adult serial killer fiction books do. So it’s intense, and it doesn’t pretend that the killing is anything but brutal, and it doesn’t romanticize murders, but it also doesn’t go on and on and on in step-by-step detail.

The good news is the Hat-Dog Killer mystery IS resolved by the end of the book. This is a mystery, after all, and that matters. (Yes, I am still not over the ending of the first season of The Killing). The bad news? Certain other plots were introduced and the way those plots were left, well, yes, the term “cliff hanger” would be appropriate.

One more thing: you know how sometimes I skip to the end to reassure myself that certain characters don’t die, so I can continue to read with less tension? Well, that totally backfired on me. Darn you, Barry Lyga!!

Other reviews:  YA Love; Makeshift Bookmark.

Review: I Hunt Killers

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga. Little, Brown & Co. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: You may have heard about Jasper Dent’s father. Billy Dent? The Artist? Green Jack. Yes, THAT Billy Dent. The serial killer.

What’s Jazz up to now? He was, what, thirteen when his father was arrested? So now he’s seventeen?

Right now, at this moment, he’s hiding in some trees, binoculars trained on a bunch of police and yellow police tape. Looking at what they’re looking at — a dead body. A dead body in a field. A dead body, in a field, that’s naked. With fingers missing.

It’s not the first dead body Jazz has seen. Billy never hid what he did from his son; Billy taught his son the tricks of the trade.

Jazz knows: this is not just any murder. This is a serial killer. And as the son of the infamous Billy Dent, he knows people will be looking at Jazz with suspicion and fear.

There’s only one solution. Whether the cops want his help or not, Jazz is going to use all that Billy taught him about how to be a serial killer to find a serial killer.

The Good: The concept alone is terrific. The son of a serial killer using his knowledge to hunt other serial killers? A serial killer book for teens? Sign. me. up.

What truly rocks is that I Hunt Killers is more than just a cool premise. It is also a fascinating study about choice and dark desires and hope. It is a character study, a study of Jazz, who is doubly cursed by nature and nurture. Is he destined to be a killer because he is the son of a killer? Is he destined to be a killer because he was taught to be a killer?

For as long as Jazz can remember, Billy Dent didn’t hide who he was. Doesn’t every parent have human teeth in their nightstand? Billy had plans for Jazz: “You’ll be the greatest ever, Jasper. They’ll never catch you. You’ll be the new boogeyman parents use to scare their kids into behaving. You’ll make everyone forget Speck and Dahmer and even Jack the Goddamn Ripper. My boy. My boy.” According to Billy, the only people who are real, who matter, who exist, are Billy and Jasper. This is the lesson Jasper has learned, and it’s a lesson he fights to unlearn, reminding himself that people are real; people matter; even those he’s never met, they are real. They matter. They shouldn’t be tortured and killed.

Jazz is the son of a serial killer, taught how to clean up evidence and how to dispose of bodies. Every dark thought he has makes him wonder, “am I thinking this because I am a killer?” Despite it all, he hopes – hopes that he is not. Hopes that his friendship with Howie and his relationship with his girlfriend Connie are not just things he’s doing to look “normal,” the way Billy was a good neighbor who coached sports teams to look “normal.”

Other lessons, Jasper tries to forget. Like what happened to his dog, Rusty. Like what happened to his missing mother. And some lessons . . . . Jasper uses. And even enjoys a little. Like turning on the smile to get what he wants. Like reading people, to know what buttons to push to get them to do what he wants.

The portrait of Jazz is brilliant. Jazz, fearing he is what his father wants, fighting it, yet wondering if maybe he really is a killer like his father.

Jasper. Oh, Jasper. Not only is he stuck with being Billy Dent’s son, he also has Gramma Dent to deal with. Billy’s mother is a nasty, mean, bitter woman whose best quality is her dementia. At one point Jazz sees a photograph of his grandmother as a young woman, and oh the questions — what turned her into such a mean, sour person? What went on in that house years ago that created Billy Dent?

The plotting and pacing of I Hunt Killers is perfect: it begins with Jazz observing the police investigation of a dead girl and takes place over the following days as Jazz becomes increasingly convinced this is the work of a serial killer while the police dismiss his theories. Lyga gives the reader two stories: the present story of the dead girl in the field, and the story of Billy Dent. The connection between the two is Jazz. The information about Billy, his past crimes, Jazz’s twisted childhood are given in bite-size doses, just enough to let us know how bad it was without overwhelming the reader. They mystery and the suspense were so overwhelming that I almost stapled the last chapter shut to prevent myself from cheating and skipping ahead to the end, to find out both “who done it” and who survived to the last page.

One last thing: this is going to be a great crossover for adult readers who like true crime and serial killer stories, especially those who don’t like them with gore. Don’t get me wrong: Lyga doesn’t hide the violence and brutality of Billy Dent and his crimes. Murder, torture, rape. But, here’s the thing: Lyga uses few words, leaving it to the reader’s imagination. One or two sentences describes what Billy did, rather than pages and pages of explicit detail.

Because I find myself almost being charmed by Billy Dent. Because I hope that Jazz doesn’t become his father. Because of Jazz’s friendships with Howie and Connie. Because I turned page after page, needing to know what would happen next, unable to guess. Because I am rooting for Jazz. Because I love a good mystery and have a weakness for stories about serial killers. I Hunt Killers is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.