Chelsea Cain
First Minotaur Books Paperback
324 pages

Chelsea Cain
First Minotaur Books Paperback
August 2010

Evil At Heart
Chelsea Cain
First Minotaur Books Paperback
September 2010

Review by Judi Rohrig

Be warned. Writer Chelsea Cain is out to steal your heart. Not the paper Valentine type, but the blood-pumping organ kind. She can’t help it. She really wanted to be a fire dog when she grew up, but she fell short and became a journalist instead. Became a humor columnist for The Oregonian. Became the author of several perfectly fine books: Dharma Girl; Wild Child; The Hippie Handbook; and Confessions of a Teen Sleuth.

Then something happened. She watched Larry King Live and decided to write a gory thriller. Cain has based her Heart series on the case of Gary Ridgway, Seattle area’s Green River Killer, who defied capture for twenty years. She dipped into the author inspiration well (or hell) of “What if…?” And hers was “What if a serial killer was a beautiful woman and the detective who had pursued her for ten years became the pursued?” Or even better: became her victim. And then lived.

In Heartsick, the kick-off novel to her series, readers are sucked in to the world of Archie Sheridan, a Portland, OR, detective who has spent ten years trying to solve the Beauty Killer serial murders. By the second sentence in Chapter One, both Archie and the reader make the same discovery: The culprit is one Gretchen Lowell, a fetching blonde who smells like lilacs and is quite handy with scalpels, drugs, and drain cleaner. Archie had been Gretchen’s 200th victim, and the only one known to have lived through his ordeal. And it is indeed a nightmare that has left Archie addicted to Vicodin and strangely attracted to the woman who hacked out his spleen.

As the story unfolds, we meet features reporter Susan Ward, a chain-smoking waif with pink hair and a hard nose for gathering news, remembering random trivia (from research on previous features stories), and sleeping with older men. Susan believes she’s been assigned to do a piece on Archie, but Archie’s merely using Susan to prod the imprisoned Gretchen to honor her plea agreement to identify her other victims. Then Archie and Susan find themselves trying to catch yet another killer, the After School Strangler. The flashback chapters detailing Archie’s torture are nothing short of compelling and not in a gory way either. Cain tackles some fine writing in the head-trip Gretchen plays with this detective.

Sweetheart continues with Archie, Susan, and the ever lovely and evil Gretchen, but this time Susan’s hair is Atomic Turquoise and this time Gretchen’s escaped. While Susan and Archie busy themselves with what looks like another serial killer, Archie tumbles head-long into what he believes will end both Gretchen’s freedom and the hold she has on him. Less gore this time out, but the psychological underpinnings are well worth the read.

Evil at Heart picks up with journalist Susan (her hair now purple: “Plum Passion”) cooling her heels, waiting for Archie who’s off the heavy drugs, but hiding out in the hospital where he’s kicked them. Not only is Gretchen still loose, but she’s become an Internet and media darling complete with T-shirts and coffee mugs (“I’d kill for Gretchen!”), available from Café Press, no doubt. And her own cult. In a final bargain in Sweetheart, Archie agreed he wouldn’t kill himself if Gretchen stopped killing others. Only there are dead bodies popping up with Gretchen’s trademark: hearts.

Cain has penned a stellar series with crisp prose and can’t-put-this-book-down plotting. But it’s her characters – Archie, Susan, and even Gretchen – that grab that throbbing organ in the reader and won’t let go. My favorite horror leans to psychological and less gore, but Cain commingles the elements, offering a most satisfying read. In The Night Season, expected to be released in April 2011, Cain thrusts Archie and Susan into flood waters swirling with an old skeleton and fresh blood. I can feel my heart pounding already.

Learn more: Chelsea Cain

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