Israel Keyes was an American serial killer, arsonist, torturer, rapist, and… God only knows what else. He was captured in 2012, and committed suicide in his cell that same year. Maureen Callahan’s excellent American Predator tells his story, and is easily the finest true crime work of 2019.
True crime authors often make such outrageous claims as saying that their books will go “inside the mind” of the serial killer they’re writing about. Callahan avoids this mistake, and shows humility in the face of a genuine enigma: she admits that, for the most part, we simply don’t know exactly why Israel Keyes did what he did, nor do we know the exact extent of his killing spree. Only Keyes himself knows, and he chose not to divulge very much during his interrogation at the hands of the FBI.
The structure of the book is perfect for its subject matter. It proceeds like an investigation, and as the FBI and police learn more and more, so do we. Rather than starting with Keyes’ childhood and proceeding from there, we jump onboard roughly the way the investigators did in 2012: “in medias res”, in the middle of the story. As Keyes speaks and reveals more and more (willingly or unwillingly), Callahan examines his claims, using her own sources to verify or debunk Keyes’ stories, or to simply point out that, in light of the existing evidence, we don’t know if Keyes is speaking the truth. This is refreshing in an era of self-appointed “profilers” and other wannabe crime “experts”.
The story is chilling, a testament to the irrational evil that seems to be an inherent part of our species’ psychological makeup. Keyes plans and carries out his killing trips with the precision of an architect planning a house or a doctor planning a surgery. He even goes so far as to leave “kill packs” around the US, containing weapons and other deadly paraphernalia, so he won’t have to pack so heavily when he decides to take off from his house for another hunting trip.
Author Callahan writes with effortless prose, choosing to get out of the way of the story rather than standing in front of it with her own opinions and filters. This is the sign of a true pro. She also does what many true crime books pay only lip-service to: she illuminates the lives of Keyes’ victims as well, and never glorifies the Alaskan killer. The focus of the book stays on relevant facts, and never strays to pointless speculation or kitchen psychology. Despite (or because of) this, the book is incredibly suspenseful, and will likely give nightmares to those with a predisposition towards reacting emotionally to harrowing stories.
We make a categorical mistake in attempting to analyze serial killers through a kind variation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: “Why did he feel the need to kill? What part of man’s array of desires was he attempting to quench? Why do most people not feel this need?” The truth is, Keyes killed not because he needed to, but because he f**king wanted to – and that realization is where the real horror lies.
Well written, suspenseful and fascinating addition to every dark history aficionado’s personal library. Buy it here.
(version read by me: Kindle edition)