Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Heartsick on Amazon
Chelsea Cain

A friend recently sent me two novels with female serial killers. I'm not sure what it means that she knew I would enjoy books about female serial killers but I am grateful that she brought both to my attention.

Chelsea Cain is a columnist for The Oregonian and the author of a parody of Nancy Drew, Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. She says on her website that the Green River Killer and its task force of police officers many of whom spent their career tracking down the killer was the inspiration for Heartsick.

Archie Sheridan lead the task force that, for ten years, tried to find the serial killer Gretchen Lowell. In the end, Gretchen captured Archie and tortured him for ten days. With Archie at the point of death Gretchen inexplicably saves his life and allows herself to be arrested. She saves herself from the death penalty by offering to reveal the locations of her victims but only to Archie. Archie's imprisonment and torture is spread out throughout the book, a technique I found effective. For one, it pulls you along. You want to find out what happened to Archie. Cain does a good job of describing the disintegration of his will. This technique also provides a counterpoint the the investigation in which Archie finds himself involved.

After two years on sick leave, Archie is brought back on active duty to head the task force seeking a serial killer who targets teen-aged girls. The higher-ups have added a complication to Archie's investigation. They tell him that a female reporter, Susan Ward, will be allowed to profile Archie and the investigation. They hope this will head off the negative press they got during the Gretchen Lowell investigation.

Readers will be reminded of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Like Hannibal Lecter, Gretchen is a brilliant manipulator who appears in flashback and in prison. Will Graham who was nearly killed by Lector is brought out of retirement to track a serial killer. Archie Sheridan is brought out of sick leave to head a task force to find a serial killer. I don't want to give the impression that Heartsick is derivative. It isn't. Gretchen is seriously scary in her own right and Cain deftly builds the suspense. Her plot twists and weaving of Archie's and Susan's back stories with the current investigation make this a really great read.

Cain is working on a sequel that continues the story of Archie and Gretchen and I signed up for the newsletter to make sure I don't miss it. If you like this form of thriller, don't miss it.

OK, I'm going to include spoilers here. If you don't want to know some of the interesting twists, stop reading.

I mean it.

Turn back now.

Last chance.

I really liked the way Cain wrote the scenes where Gretchen was holding Archie prisoner and torturing him. The progression from resistance to acceptance was very well done. We see Archie gradually becoming a participant in his own torture and developing a weird sort of dependence on and even love of Gretchen. We also find that Gretchen had male accomplices, one of whom she murders in front of Archie. As I said earlier, Gretchen is really, really scary and well formed as a character.

In a plot complication that I didn't see coming that the current serial killer was one of Gretchen's followers and she has been manipulating events from the beginning. Her saving of Archie, not so inexplicable. She was planning to use him later. it looks like Gretchen is able to activate her male accomplices on their own killing sprees and she thinks that Archie has potential in that area. As for Susan Ward, she is a lot closer to the story than she knows.