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Dear Killer

Dear Killer - Katherine Ewell Have you ever heard of Axe Cop?

Axe Cop is the creation of a five-year-old boy. Five-year-olds come up with weird characters in the course of pretend play all the time. However, this particular child, Malachai Nicolle, has an older brother named Ethan who happens to be a comic-book writer and illustrator. Ethan Nicolle is a very nice guy who enjoys the time he spends playing with Malachai, and who was amused by the concept of Axe Cop, a police officer who fights crime with the help of a fireman axe. The whole time they were playing, Ethan recalls, “I was thinking, ‘This could be a funny comic.’”

And it is. You can buy the books, or go online to watch the animated series based on the Nicolle brothers’ creation. (Ethan insists on giving full author credit to young Malachai, though I have the feeling he does a hefty amount of editing – especially when Malachai comes up with characters whose resemblance to existing comic heroes borders on copyright violation.)

The joy of reading Axe Cop is very specific. It relies entirely on whether you take pleasure from very young children’s ideas of how the universe works.

For instance: In the first issue, Axe Cop takes his new partner (Flute Cop) to the land of volcanoes to defeat a gang of dinosaurs. They are successful, of course; but in the course of the battle, Flute Cop gets dinosaur blood on him:

The dinosaur blood caused Flute Cop to unexpectedly transform into a dinosaur soldier! And so they became...Axe Cop and Dinosaur Soldier!

Later, Dinosaur Soldier eats an avocado:

The avocado caused Dinosaur Soldier to turn into an avocado that can shoot avocado out of his hands. “I’m Avocado Soldier now.”

Axe Cop’s parents are named Bobber and Gobber Smartist. Oh, and Flute Cop – I mean, Avocado Soldier – is actually Axe Cop’s brother.

Wait – so how come Axe Cop didn’t recognize his only sibling when he held tryouts for a partner? And why didn’t then-Flute Cop notice that the man he was auditioning for was his dear baby brother Axey Smartist?

One day they were both walking backwards. They hit their heads so hard that they forgot everything, even one another.

Oh.

Axe Cop is definitely a pass-or-fail test for readers. Either you can’t get enough of this kind of thing, or it leaves you cold.

I happen to adore listening to kids pretend aloud. It was the best part of all those years I spent babysitting. (Okay – that, and when the kids decided my long hair was perfect for playing beauty shop. As long as they didn’t cut it or paint it, I was putty in their hands. But I digress.)

All this is the reason Dear Killer worked for me. For a while.

Dear Killer was written by a seventeen-year-old. Specifically, a seventeen-year-old who managed to get a publisher interested in her written game of Let’s Pretend.

Considering that this game involves a seventeen-year-old serial killer, it’s surprisingly cozy for a surprising length of time. At least it was for me for as long as I could pretend I was the grownup in the room while a child explained the rules of her universe to me.

“So, there’s this girl? And everybody thinks she’s just a girl? But really, she’s a killer. Only nobody knows she’s a killer.”

“Why does she kill people, sweetheart?”

“It’s her job.”

(trying to keep a straight face) “Wow. Her job? You mean she works for the government or something?”

“No! The government doesn’t know about her! Nobody knows about her! Except her mom.

“Oh. So she told her mom she kills people? Wasn’t her mom mad?”

“No! It was her mom’s idea! Her mom told her to kill people!”

“Wait – I thought you said it was the girl’s job. Killing people, I mean.”

“It is! It was her mom’s job, and now it’s her job!”

(completely lost) “Oh. But how does she get paid?”

(almost bouncing up and down with excitement) “There’s a restaurant, right? And everyone thinks the women’s restroom there is haunted? And if you leave a letter asking the girl to please kill somebody for you, she might do it. But you have to put money in the letter, too. Or she won’t kill the person you want her to.”

(head spinning) “But – how do the people know she’s a killer and she’ll kill people for them?”

“They don’t know she’s a killer, but they know somebody is!”

“But they know the killer’s a girl?”

“No! Nobody knows! Nobody knows who it is! In fact, everybody thinks it’s a guy! But really it’s this girl! And she’s the perfect killer! Nobody can ever catch her!”

“She must be really good at it. So – only girls ask her to kill people? Girls and women, I mean.”

(scornfully) “No! Everybody does!”

“But you have to leave the letters in the women’s restroom...”

“So?”

“Well, wouldn’t people notice if men went in there?”

“No!”

“Um...”

“THEY JUST DON’T.”

“Okay, honey. Okay. So they go in there with their letters and – what do they do with them?”

(happy again) “There’s a special secret hiding place in one of the toilet stalls! Everybody knows about it! She calls it her mailbox! She goes and checks her mail, and all the letters are there! She takes all the letters and all the money, and then she kills whichever people she feels like killing!”

“But wouldn’t the people who work there notice if she goes to that same restroom every day?”

“She doesn’t go every day! She doesn’t want people to notice her ‘cause then she might get caught, so she only goes, like, once every couple of months!”

“But, sweetie – if everybody knows about this secret hiding place, and she doesn’t empty it every day, how does she stop other people from taking the money before she can?”

(shocked) “That would be stealing!”

And that’s just the premise. I didn’t mark any of that as a spoiler, because it’s all in the first chapter.

You’d be forgiven for expecting Avocado Soldier to show up and fight The Perfect Killer. That would be marginally more realistic than what does go on to happen.

Initially – longer than I should have been, really – I was charmed enough by this sense of being in someone’s “let’s pretend” world to enjoy this book. If this had been treated the way Axe Cop was – as an amusing idea by an engagingly creative young story-spinner – it might have worked.

But this book takes itself the wrong kind of seriously. And it insists the reader take it seriously, too. And no thinking reader could. Even if readers don’t know every detail of how a successful dead drop works, they’d easily figure out how epically this one fails. And that’s not the only flaw in Dear Killer’s set-up. Not by a long shot.

The people who told this young writer she had talent were right to do so. The ones who went on to publish her story as she wrote it did her a great disservice.

I’d love to say more, but I have to go catch up on my reading. Axe Cop has a new sidekick named Uni-Baby. She has a magical horn that grants wishes.

Now that I’ve finished Dear Killer, I need a dose of that kind of realism.