Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Heartsick ($7.99), by Chelsea Cain


Although the author writes a humorous, personal, quirky, and charming column for The Oregonian newspaper, this is no polite, girly chitchat kind of novel. Her book is over the edge -- and it’s a hard edge -- and graphically gory. However, Cain’s trademark humor is present in the character of Susan Ward, tough-but-vulnerable girl reporter.

First, let me say it is creepy in extremis to live in the city (Portland) that Cain details without much disguise as the setting for her gore-fest. She names actual high schools, drives down actual streets, and plants her bodies where I’ve heretofore happily walked. The only element safely pseudonym-ed is The Oregonian, as “The Herald.”

Punky Susan, with her pink pigtails, ratty jeans, and grab-‘em-by-the-fleshy-parts style of journalism launches into a story about a police detective, Archie Sheridan, who is returning from an extended medical leave to catch the serial killer of teenage girls.

Archie was on medical leave because he was tortured by the last serial killer he tried to catch. In that case the beautiful Gretchen Lowell defeated the police task force’s attempts to define and capture her. Instead she caught one of the catchers. She claimed to have killed 200 people, and Archie was to be her pièce de resistance: the filet mignon in her gourmet spread, the electric jolt that sent Frankenstein’s monster reeling into the night, her Oprah “aha” moment, the … oh, you get the idea.

The how of Archie’s survival, if I may use that word, slowly unfolds. What Archie learned during his ordeal about the dark side of human nature he applies to his present hunt. Someone is stealing young girls from the streets of Portland, raping and murdering them, then carelessly tossing them back.

With the permission of Archie and the police department, Susan is interviewing people to tell the story of Archie’s torture and weaving it into his hunt for the new serial killer. She brings her own baggage to the assignment, and Cain excels in creating this feisty, eccentric, and very human character.

The payoff for the reader is that there are twists and there are TWISTS in the plot. There is even a twist on the title. It is excruciating to wait for each revelation and surprise. Even when the plot finally takes a vaguely conventional turn, Cain torques it up even then.

Not surprisingly, Heartsick has earned Carolyn’s gold star. It is heartrendingly good.

Be forearmed and forewarned: If you come into the store and exclaim, “Oh, a novel by that cute and funny Chelsea Cain,” don’t be surprised if I give you the graphic warning alert before I “allow you” to buy it.

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