93 pages 3 hours read

Barry Lyga

I Hunt Killers

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2012

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I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga is a YA thriller published in 2012. The novel’s central character is Jasper “Jazz” Dent, son of the nation’s most notorious serial killer, Billy Dent. The novel is told from a limited third-person point of view, mostly from the perspective of Jazz; however, at certain points in the novel, the perspective shifts to that of the Impressionist, a new serial killer who has descended upon the small town of Lobo’s Nod where the story is set. The identity of the Impressionist is not revealed until the final, climactic chapters of the book.

The novel opens with a young woman’s naked corpse being discovered in a field just outside of Lobo’s Nod. Jazz lives at his Gramma Dent’s home, the house where his father was born and raised. His Gramma Dent is almost completely senile; Gramma Dentis also violent, always at the ready with her shotgun. Melissa Hoover, a local social worker, frequently visits Jazz at Gramma Dent’s house to check on him. Melissa believes that, due to Gramma Dent’s rapidly diminishing mental faculties, Jazz would be much better off placed in foster care. Shunned by much of Lobo’s Nod due to his father’s crimes, Jazz has very few companions, with the exception of two very close friends: Howie, his hemophiliac best friend since childhood; and then Connie, his aspiring actress girlfriend who always tries to get Jazz to see that he is nothing like his father.

When the young woman’s corpse is discovered, Jazz immediately suspects that it is a serial killer. Jazz tells the local sheriff, G. William, that due to the fact that the body was recovered missing some if its fingers, he believes that the killer is likely keeping them as “trophies”–which is behavior Jazz identifies as typical of serial killers. While Jazz respects G. William immensely, he defies G. William and begins investigating the murder on his own.

In order to get a better look at the body, Jazz and Howie sneak into the morgue late that night. However, an off-duty police officer, Deputy Erickson, catches the two boys in the morgue, and both Jazz and Howie are cuffed and taken to the police station. At the police station, G. William lets the boys off with a warning, and specifically tells Jazz that his only job is to try and be a normal kid, and that police investigations should be left to the professionals. Jazz still feels that, given his upbringing, he is uniquely equipped to catch serial killers. Jazz, through his own investigation, determines that the name of the young woman found dead in the field was Fiona Goodling.

The narrative suddenly shifts to the third-person limited perspective of someone referred to as The Impressionist. It is clear that the Impressionist is the killer, but his exact identity is not revealed.

The Impressionist’s next victim is Helen Myerson, a waitress at Coff-E Shop, the local café where Jazz and Howie meet every morning before school. Helen, it is later determined, was given an injection of drain cleaner to the neck, and then her corpse was posed as though it was praying. Like Fiona Goodling, the Impressionist took a few of Helen’s fingers as trophies.

At this point, it becomes clear to Jazz that the Impressionist is mimicking the crimes of Billy Dent: Billy’s first victim had the initials F.G., just like Fiona Goodling, and both women’s basic identifying features (age, hair color, occupation) were the same. Billy’s following victim had the initials H.M., and just like Helen Meyerson, and they were both brown-haired waitresses around the age of 25. If the Impressionist continues to follow Billy’s pattern, Jazz anticipates that his next victim’s initials will be V.D., and she will be an actress around the age of 22 years old. With that in mind, Jazz, Howie, and Connie try to search Lobo’s Nod for potential victims fitting that profile.

Jazz and Howie are en route to check the local high school’s acting club records, when Jazz realizes that the new drama teacher at the high school, Ginny Davis, is actually a nickname for Virginia, making her initials V.D. By the time Jazz and Howie reach Ginny’s apartment building, it is too late: Jazz bursts into the apartment, while Howie runs outside to call the authorities. Jazz finds Ginny lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood, barely alive. The Impressionist is wearing a full-face ski mask, but Jazz catches a flash of his blue eyes before escaping out the window. Jazz tries to administer CPR to Ginny, but it is too late and she dies. Jazz goes to the window to see if he might catch another glimpse of the Impressionist, but when he looks down from Ginny’s third-floor apartment, he does not see the Impressionist. Instead, he is shocked to see Howie lying on the pavement.

The Impressionist, it turns out, slashed Howie after jumping out the window and fleeing the scene. Due to Howie’s hemophilia, Howie is hospitalized in the intensive care unit, but he recovers fairly quickly. Meanwhile, the school has a memorial service for Ginny where Jeff Fulton, the father of one of Billy Dent’s victims, attends. Fulton, just a few days earlier, approached Jazz to ask if Billy had ever told him what his daughter’s last words were before she was killed. Jazz feels terrible at not being able to help Jeff Fulton get closure on his daughter’s death, but Jazz tells him that he is unable to help him.

Jazz and G. William join forces to try find the next victim before the Impressionist strikes again. The next victim’s initials will be I.H. and she will be a maid. Going by Billy’s timeline, G. William estimates that they have two days before the Impressionist strikes again. However, the Impressionist senses that Jazz and G. William are close on his tail and ends up committing the crime earlier than anticipated: G. William’s squad discovers the body of Irene Heller, a stay-at-home-mom who does cleaning work part-time to help support the family income.

Jazz realizes that, in order to stop the Impressionist, Jazz must visit his father in Wammaket State Penitentiary to find out what he knows. After four years in prison, Jazz has never once visited his father, but the urgency of the situation with the Impressionist demands it. Billy and Jazz sit across from one another in a small gray room. Jazz and Billy’s conversation is tense, stifled, and feels like a game of cat-and-mouse, with Billy manipulating Jazz by asking him about his deepest, darkest fears. Namely, Billy brings up the sensitive subject of Jazz’s mother, who went missing when Jazz was just a little child. Redirecting the conversation, Billy asks Jazz exactly what he wants and why he has come to see him in prison after all this time. Jazz admits that it is because he wants to help the police catch the Impressionist, and he wants to know if Billy can help him do that. Billy claims to have no knowledge of the Impressionist, but he helps Jazz talk through the Impressionist’s identity. The key, Billy says, is that whoever the Impressionist is, he will be sure to blend in. Billy suspects that the Impressionist is a local resident of Lobo’s Nod.

The narrative’s perspective shifts again to the Impressionist, and we see him walking up to Gramma Dent’s house and ringing the doorbell. When Jazz opens the door, the narrative flips back to Jazz’s perspective, who opens the door thus revealing the Impressionist’s identity: It is the man known as “Jeff Fulton,” the supposed father of one of Billy’s victims. Jazz soon learns that this man is not the real Jeff Fulton; he is a Billy Dent devotee in disguise. When Jazz opens the door, the Impressionist overtakes him, binding and gagging him. As someone who idolizes Billy, the Impressionist also idolizes Jazz, and wants to “help” him fulfill his destiny as one of the greatest killers who ever lived, just like his father. To do this, the Impressionist attempts to force Jazz to kill Gramma Dent, but Howie and Connie burst in to the Gramma Dent’s home just in the nick of time. Howie clubs the Impressionist with one of Gramma Dent’s shotguns, and they shackle him to a chair as they wait for G. William’s police squad to come make the full arrest.

Meanwhile, Billy escapes prison and brutally murders Melissa Hoover. Jazz does not know how Billy escaped exactly, but he thinks it may have something to do with Billy’s request to Jazz as a favor in prison, which was for Jazz to move the birdbath outside Gramma Dent’s house. The mystery of how Billy escaped prison is not resolved at the end of the novel, nor is the mystery of what happened to Jazz’s mother. Billy leaves a note at Melissa Hoover’s apartment addressed to Jazz that says Billy is proud of him, and that one day perhaps they can discuss what Jazz did to his mother. One week after Billy escapes, Jazz gets a tattoo in two-inch high black Gothic script along his clavicle that reads “I Hunt Killers,” suggesting that Jazz is going to continue his work as an unofficial vigilante for serial killers. In the Epilogue, a trench-coated figure stands at the back of the auditorium while Jazz and the rest of The Crucible perform the play. The novel closes with Jazz, in the role of Reverend Hale, shouting: “There is blood on my head! Can you not see the blood on my head!” (359).

I Hunt Killers explores themes surrounding fatherhood, personal identity, and fate. It is the first book in a series surrounding the life and times of Jazz Dent. While I Hunt Killers and its two succeeding books—Game and Blood of My Blood—comprise a trilogy, Lyga also penned a number of “prequels” to Jazz Dent’s epic.