Desert Isle Keeper Review

Heartsick

Chelsea Cain
2008 reissue of 2007 release, Suspense
St. Martin's, $7.99, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312947151

Grade: A
Sensuality: Subtle

Archie Sheridan is a tortured hero. Literally. Two years ago, female serial killer Gretchen Lowell kidnapped Archie, tortured him, removed his spleen, and them turned herself in. Oh, and she also carved a heart on his chest. It should go without saying that Heartsick is not for the squeamish. Also, while there are twisted relationships at its (ahem) heart, it's definitely not a romance. The action moves back and forth between Archie's torture (in the present tense) and the hunt for a new serial killer. This makes sense because Archie is still obsessed with Gretchen. He visits her in prison every week, ostensibly to learn the identities of her previous victims.

When he's asked to come back to work help find someone who's raping and killing teenaged girls, Archie makes an unusual demand - he wants a reporter to follow his progress. Pink-haired Oregon Herald reporter Susan Ward wants to break a big story involving a beloved senator who may have slept with an under-aged babysitter, but she finds herself dogging Archie's footsteps as the task force tries try to find a missing girl. Why does Archie give a reporter such close access into the case and his life? That only becomes clear later.

Archie is divorced and dysfunctional, relying on a number of pills to get through the day. His obsession with Gretchen has taken over his life. While the book is about a search for a new serial killer, it's his twisted relationship with Gretchen that stands out. In this way, it reminded me of The Silence of the Lambs, where the meetings between Clarice and Lecter were more compelling than the scenes involving "Buffalo Bill." Far from the typical cop (his favorite movie is by Goddard), Archie believes he will never get better. He's on the edge, and I wondered when he would fall off. He has more issues than the Oregon Herald. Yet he isn't the only dysfunctional person here. Susan wears her pink hair and T-shirts like a statement and has a thing for older men - she is dating her married boss. She's the type of person who prefers rain, so I guess that makes Portland the perfect city for her. When the investigation takes her to her old high school, Susan has to relive years she would rather forget. Thrown among the cops of the task force, she's like a fish out of water, taken to babbling about the many facts that run through her head. Unfortunately, for someone so smart and full of knowledge, she makes some really stupid decisions, both in her life and near the end of the book.

Gretchen is manipulative and gorgeous, a serial killer who uses sex to get her way and has killed at least 200 people. She's so beautiful and perfect that she might be a Mary Sue - on Bizarro World. Yet she saved Archie's life. Does she love Archie, or is she using him? Just who is using whom? She's far from your typical female serial killer - closer to, say, Nicole Kidman than a frumpy poisoner (Google Velma Barfield) or to Aileen Wuornos. Is she a realistic portrayal of a female serial killer? Not to me, but I didn't want her to be. Only a serial killer like Gretchen would have made this story work. There are lots of questions remaining about the Archie/Gretchen relationship. Why did Gretchen let him go? Why does Archie keep coming back for more? If you liked the psychological interplay between Dr. Lecter and Clarice during The Silence of the Lambs, you'll probably like this part of the story. At the same time, Gretchen is no Hannibal Lecter, although the sexual tension between Archie and Gretchen is something unique to Heartsick.

The supporting cast is packed with memorable people, from the task force members to the reporters. Even the suspects have personalities. How often can you say that? Archie's ex-wife is long-suffering. They still talk, but even now, Gretchen gets between them. Susan's mother, Bliss, is a study in Portland contradictions - a Vegan who eats chocolate and smokes. In fact, Portland is as much of a character as Bliss or the task force members. Cain is a Portland native and a reporter, and it shows, not just in her descriptions of Portland but in the details of Susan's job.

The narrative moves along, and the dialogue is snappy. This is not one of those books where all the detectives sound bland, or like Joe Friday clones. It's often frank. There's a lot of back and forth between characters, and Susan is rarely without a comeback. For example:

He snorted. "Did they tell you your vagina got you the story?"
She smiled sweetly. "My vagina is my most tireless advocate."

I've read lots of serial killer books, and Heartsick is one of the quirkiest. It's not the most realistic portrayal of serial killers - but I didn't go in expecting that. I enjoyed it more than a lot of the more realistic ones. In fact, I read it over a weekend because I had to find out more about Archie and Gretchen. Oh, yeah, and to find out if the task force would stop the serial killer in time.

*A note on the sensuality rating: There are no graphic love scenes, so this gets a "subtle." However, it's very frank about sex. For example, Susan lures a potential interview subject out of a nightclub with a promise of a blow job. There is also a frank scene that gets close, but no cigar.

-- Anne Marble

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