Portland Homicide Detective Archie Sheridan is a broken man. He’s estranged from his wife and kids, addicted to pain pills, and haunted by the memory of the ten days of torture he spent at the hands of a beautiful serial killer named Gretchen Lowell nearly two years ago. She carved graffiti into his skin with a knife, deprived him of sleep, pumped him full of hallucinogens, made him drink drain cleaner, removed his spleen in a meatball surgery fiasco and then made him decide who would receive his body parts in the mail. She brought him to the point where he begged for death. And she almost obliged him. She did stop his heart, but then mysteriously revived him, called 911, and kept him alive with CPR until an ambulance could arrive to save his life and the cops to arrest her.
Archie’s body was nearly destroyed by that experience, but his mind suffered more. You see, these days, the only thing Archie has left to live for is his regularly scheduled Sunday morning visit to the maximum security prison where Gretchen Lowell is serving out her multiple life without parole sentences. One by one, she feeds him the locations of her more than two hundred victims, and Archie keeps trying to convince himself that her continued confession is the reason he keeps coming back, though deep down inside he knows that isn’t true. Even from behind bars, it seems, Gretchen’s power over Archie is complete.
Well, here’s the catch. Lately, Gretchen has stopped giving up bodies. Archie’s former partners and bosses are starting to think that maybe it isn’t such a good idea to allow him to continue these visits, because they’re certainly not helping Archie any. And then a new serial killer starts murdering young high school girls. The powers that be decide to reconvene the Beauty Killer Task Force, the group of homicide detectives and FBI profilers who conducted the ten year manhunt for Gretchen Lowell, and they want Archie to head up the team. Archie accepts the offer. With a pink-haired, psychologically damaged female reporter named Susan Ward tagging along, Archie Sheridan and his task force hunt this new serial killer into Portland’s High Schools in a race to stop him from taking another young victim.
Now there are about a million serial killer stories out there. Sometimes I think that at least three out of every five novels published every year are serial killer stories. Evidently, the old ghost hasn’t worn out its welcome yet, because writers keep writing them and readers keep reading them. Most of these stories read pretty much the same way. The serial killer is some sort of twisted genius who ends up turning the tables on the police and starts hunting the ones who are hunting him—or, rarely, her. And of course there is the killer’s signature, the stuffing of a moth down the victim’s throat, or writing “Annie” on their ankle, or plugging a computer mouse into their ass, whatever the author can come up with. Generally, this “signature” is supposed to convince us that the story’s killer is….drum roll please…pure evil!!! That’s PURE EVIL, mind you, in all caps.
I’ve already said my peace about serial killers in my review of Fran Friel’s truly amazing novella “Mama’s Boy,” but in case you missed that, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version here. As a homicide detective, I have participated in two separate serial killer investigations. In both cases, after they were caught, I got to interview the killer. Let me assure you, real serial killers are nothing like what you read about in serial killer novels. They are almost always pathetic losers who are no more the incarnation of PURE EVIL than the guy who invented standardized testing in public schools. True, both create a lot of misery, but that’s hardly the definition of evil.
So why do we read serial killer stories then? What’s the point? We know real serial killers and the serial killers in books are so far apart they’re not even sending postcards anymore, so why bother reading about them? Well, Heartsick will give you a good reason. First off, author Chelsea Cain has gone a long ways towards humanizing the monster, which anybody who has bothered to read Shelley’s Frankenstein can tell you is the only effective way to draw a monster. There are scenes where Gretchen Lowell shows us the cracks in her evil genius facade. We see a woman who demands you give her your full attention, because she is terrified of losing it. She has an added dimension that most serial killer stories can’t muster, and that by itself would be enough to put this into the A List category of thriller fiction.
But strong characterization is not the only thing Heartsick has going for it. The other real strength of this book is its unconventional plot structure. As you read this book, you may find yourself wondering what in the hell is going on. Why are we getting all this stuff about Gretchen Lowell and so little about the ongoing investigation? You see, the flashbacks to Archie’s torture at Gretchen’s hands, the backstory, if you will, are considerably more interesting than the investigation that carries the story along. We find ourselves saying, Why not just give us the hunt for Gretchen, because this other stuff just seems tacked on? Well, let me assure you, the plot is much more cohesive than it first appears. I won’t give any specific spoilers here, but let me just say that if you think there are two separate storylines going on here, you’ve got a big surprise at the end. The twists and turns here hide the fact that this is actually a tightly woven plot.
I am very hard to please when it comes to serial killer stories, as you can probably tell, but this one stands out from a very crowded field. If you’ve soured on serial killer stories, or if you’ve put off reading them because you didn’t see the point after Silence of the Lambs did it so well, give Heartsick a try. It has a unique take on the genre that is worth a go.
Recommended. This is a convincing glimpse into a haunted mind, well worth the price of admission.