Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Heartsick.
While I like a few "bloody knife" books, I'm not normally a fan of the serial killer genre. But when my wife recommended Chelsea Cain's new book to me, she suggested that I first read her debut novel. With that in mind, I reserved a copy of Heartsick and dutifully sat down to read it when it finally arrived. When I finally came up for air a few hours later, I was greatly looking forward to book two. Not only is Heartsick a novel about catching a serial killer, it's an examination of what can drive a man who has been captured and tormented by a sadistic killer, and how he deals with that horror. Also, it takes place in Portland, Oregon, so we do get a new locale that hasnít been explored much. That's always a plus as well.
It's been two years since Detective Archie Sheridan was captured, tortured, then surprisingly released by beautiful serial killer Gretchen Lowell when she called 911 and turned herself, and her victim, in to the police. On medical leave since then, Archie has been trying to recover his soul, though Gretchen continues to manipulate him: he meets her in prison every Sunday on the off chance she'll offer up another of her kills. Archie is obsessed, but his partner, Henry, hopes that he's well enough to head up another serial killer task force, as three teenage girls have now disappeared after school and turned up dead days later. Shadowed by reporter Susan Ward, who has been assigned to write a profile of him, Sheridan must figure things out before he himself goes off the deep end. And just why has he agreed to this profile, anyway?
I have talked about the "just one more chapter" feeling a book can give you, and I've even felt it at times, but nothing like this. I literally could not put this book down yesterday except by great effort if something else really needed to get done. Cain's prose is decent, but it's her character and plotting that kept me riveted. Archie is a damaged soul, convinced he "died" under Gretchen's "care", returning as a different man than he was before. It's cost him his wife and children, and he's now addicted to Vicodin and other drugs. He's able to manage things, but he's still ensnared by Lowell. He insists that he owes it to the families of her victims to find out where all the bodies are, and she continues to string him along, offering up mere tidbits. Heartsick is about their relationship more than it is about this new serial killer, which makes it fitting that the two plots are intertwined.
Archie is fascinating to read about, but Cain gets into the heads of her other characters as well. Most of her characters, at least those to whom she gives depth, are damaged in some way. Susan had a troubled childhood after the death of her father, and her current relationship with her mother is strange to the point where she calls her by name rather than "Mom." She has a habit of falling for older men who are authority figures and has dyed her hair pink as an expression of something that she's not even sure of. Anne, the FBI profiler who screwed up the Gretchen Lowell case so badly because Gretchen manipulated the profile. Anne's working hard to redeem herself in her own eyes, as well as be a friend to Archie, even though it's taken her thousands of miles away from her family.
All of the other characters are seen through the lens of these main ones, but even they are well done. The only slight misstep is Ian, Susan's boss and lover, who remains pretty much a cipher. We don't really get to see what motivates him, and it's not because he's a fairly minor character. The other minor players have at least some depth, but Ian is mainly a foil for Susan.
We learn about what Gretchen did to Archie in a series of flashbacks that do their part to illustrate what Archie seems to be going through at any specific time, or if a reference has been made to it. These chapters are intriguing as well, though they are not for the squeamish. Cain goes into great gory detail on what Gretchen does to him, from intricate descriptions of breaking his ribs to various cuttings and surgical procedures. Fans of the "bloody knife" genre are probably already used to this and will thus not have a problem with it, but just a warning to those who are new to the subgenre. I have a pretty strong stomach, but I winced a few times myself.
Still, the scenes are powerful all gore aside as we see Archie slowly succumb to her wiles, the pain excruciating and him just wanting to die, and we see just how sick and twisted she really is. This carries over to Archie's meetings with her in prison. The manipulation continues, Archie aware of it but unable to help himself. He feels tied to her in some way, and he can't pull back. When I first heard about this novel, I got severe Silence of the Lambs vibes as one killer in prison talks to the detective who is pursuing another one outside. Thankfully, Cain puts that feeling to rest during the first meeting with a lovely zinger that addresses the similarity and has some fun with it.
Heartsick is a great example of the genre, well-written and tightly plotted. The one screaming coincidence ends up beautifully explained at the end of the novel, and there are also some nice bits of dark humor as well. Overall, this novel is well worth a read, as long as you have nothing against the genre itself. Just make sure you don't eat anything before reading some of the passages. Also, make sure you've budgeted your time lest you run into the same problem I did.