Sexy serial killer

Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick is a bloody good thriller

Readers love serial killers. From cheap paperbacks to Hannibal Lecter the fascination with the modern murderer reflects a particular urban horror stretching back to Jack the Ripper. That is the idea that someone somewhere — a person you don’t know — could capture torture rape and murder you. Maybe they’d find your body maybe they wouldn’t. But they’d never find out who did it.

Chelsea Cain’s new novel Heartsick is a crafty and gory new entry in the enigmatic serial killer genre. Fans of crime fiction are usually forced to wade through the dregs of cheap poorly written paperbacks in the search for an artfully written thriller that hits all the right points (gory crimes strained detective) and offers something a little more.

It’s no wonder that genre fiction is so derided — a lot of it’s garbage best avoided. But Heartsick is full of lots of clever nasty surprises. It opens in rainy Portland where a killer is stalking young girls raping and murdering them. It reminds everyone of another killer who picked off Portland’s citizens a couple of years earlier: Gretchen Lowell.

Cain then introduces readers to Archie Sheridan the detective investigating Portland’s new killer. He was also the lead detective who spent a decade chasing Gretchen — and the only one to survive her capture. She had lured him into a trap and spent 10 days torturing him and nearly killing him. Then without warning she kept him alive and turned herself in.

Heartsick opens with Archie addicted to painkillers haunted by his memories his marriage destroyed. He takes over leading the case for the new killer but his fellow cops and the public are skeptical. In order to clean up his PR image a reporter Susan is paired with him. The paper gets the exclusive story the police get public support — but of course it doesn’t work out that way.

The star of the book though is Gretchen (who Cain based on the very real and scary Green River Killer). Gretchen is a cute nurse medical dropout and full-time serial killer. She’s in jail by the time we meet her but memories of Archie’s capture and torture are laced throughout the book.

She straps him to a gurney complete with catheter and IV and goes to work. Nails are hammered into his ribs he’s force-fed pills and drain cleaner and she removes his spleen and sends it to his boss. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s more gruesome than it sounds and the gorehound in me could’ve used even more detail and bloodspray. Cain writes these scenes with visceral glee — you can feel Archie’s nerves squirming as she mutilates him. They compose the most compelling scenes in the book but highlight its faults. Gretchen is a cute prolific serial killer but there isn’t any sense of her motives or just how she’s managed to artfully mutilate dozens of victims (she claims 200) over a decade. She also doesn’t have the propensity for Hannibal’s jocular mindgames opting instead for a “Does that hurt? Good” line of questioning.

Archie continues to visit Gretchen every week — she’ll only tell him where she’s ditched her victims. The dour detective’s relationship with his captor has ruined his life and led everyone else to question his sanity. Cain has created a wickedly amoral beauty in Gretchen but her relationship to the narrative is tangential. OK there’s a little more there – but I won’t ruin the surprises for you.

Is it time to move over Hannibal Lecter? Not yet but Heartsick is a twisted shocker that’s a er cut above your average thriller.