Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

I’m going to have to agree with great author Chuck Palahniuk (and about a bazillion critics) when he says, “With Gretchen Lowell, Chelsea Cain gives us the most compelling, most original serial killer since Hannibal Lecter.” Not only does Cain create an iconic serial killer (who, by the way, is only a subplot), but with Heartsick she weaves an engaging and exciting story populated by memorable main characters, a gloomy setting and enough twists and turns to satisfy any fan of thriller fiction.

Detective Archie Sheridan is a damaged man. For ten years he was part of a Beauty Killer Task Force, obsessively hunting down a notorious serial killer. Well, the tables were turned when the killer, Gretchen Lowell, finally tracked and trapped him. She lovingly tortured Archie for very long ten days, leaving him physically and emotionally broken. After carving him up, breaking all his ribs, stabbing him, cutting out his spleen, pumping him full of hallucinogens, slowly killing him with drain cleaner and stopping his heart, Gretchen, for no apparent reason, called an ambulance on the tenth day and allowed herself to be arrested. After pushing away all that used to be important to him (his family, his career), Archie is now addicted to pain killers and to his visits with Gretchen every Sunday in hopes she’ll give up the location of her more than 200 victims as well as for some twisted comfort.

After a two year leave of absence, Archie is called back as the old members of his task force are reassigned to a new serial killer case. Young girls from the Portland area’s high schools have been disappearing, only to be found naked, dead and, strangely of all, bleached days after their abductions. While on the case, Archie asks that Susan Ward, a young, pink-haired newspaper reporter for the Oregon Herald, to document the case and get his story out, hoping to purge himself from Gretchen. Susan’s got some past secrets of her own, though, that may tie into the After School Strangler case…Will the spunky reporter and the tortured detective be able to solve the case before more teenage girls die?

The main focus of the book is the current After School Strangler case at hand. Between the perspectives of main characters Susan and Archie, Cain also takes us back in time to show us the gruesome torture Archie suffered at the hands of Gretchen Lowell. This back and forth between characters and time periods is done skillfully by Cain, and really keeps the reader engaged and the pace moving along at a fast clip.

The characters are one of the strongest aspects of the book. From the horrifyingly intriguing serial killer Gretchen Lowell to the tormented Archie Sheridan and the determined but flawed Susan Ward, Cain gives us well-developed and realistic characters. Even the secondary characters, like FBI profiler Anne Boyd and Archie’s boss, Henry Sobol, are fleshed out to the point where we feel like we know them. I genuinely liked all the characters and cared what happened to them. Even the evil ones like Gretchen Lowell and the After School Strangler, whom I didn’t necessarily root for, were made morbidly fascinating by Cain.

As for the story, Heartsick is definitely not your typical serial killer novel. It’s not some noirish tale of gumshoes going after the bad guys and saving the damsels in distress. Those hardboiled novels are all well and good, but Heartsick takes a different, more terrifying look at serial killers, and, even more so, at our own flawed psyche’s.

Cain, with her luridly vivid descriptions of Archie’s torture and the washed-up bodies of the After School Strangler’s victims, definitely knows how to paint a nausea-inducing picture, but also knows how to tell a whole-heartedly engaging story. Once I started reading Heartsick, I found it almost impossible to put down! Hopefully Cain will write more books about Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan, because she already has a fan of her books right here!

If you are looking for a fast-paced, gruesome and fresh serial killer story complete with interesting characters and a new iconic serial killer, look no further than Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick.

Available from Amazon!

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