My contribution this week to the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is to discuss a book I read just before starting this blog last year: Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick. It’s a story about Portland detective Archie Sheridan who tracked one of America’s most gruesome serial killers for ten years. Until she caught him. Gretchen Lowell kidnapped Archie and tortured him for days before giving herself up and allowing him to receive medical treatment. When the book opens it’s two years after these events and Archie, who has been on medical leave for the whole time, is asked to go back to work to head up a new task force tracking a new serial killer. At the same time he agrees to be the subject of a series of feature articles in one of the city’s leading newspapers.
This was one of those reading experiences that I got completely engrossed with. The parallel unravelling of the current case, the events surrounding Archie’s kidnap and his continuing interactions with Lowell is done in a very tantalising way. If you’ve ever done a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the picture is supposed to be you’ll have an idea of how this is put together. Each chapter you get a glimpse of some part of the whole story but then you’re diverted to a new strand or twist before you get too comfortable with the idea that you know what’s going on. I found it genuinely suspenseful. There were a couple of credibility-stretching plot points, such as the notion that any Police Department would allow someone who’d been through what Archie had been through to return to active duty without a plethora of drug tests, psych tests and..oh…I don’t know…a lobotomy but this is a minor criticism of an otherwise excellent plot.
The characters are also the kind that stick with you. Archie is about as tortured a soul as you could meet on the pages of a book and Lowell is evil incarnate. While it’s interesting to see a female serial killer depicted it’s even more interesting to see a male character as the kind of victim that Archie is. Cain has been very subtle in her depiction of this kind of role reversal which has a far greater impact than a more overt approach would have had. In fact all the characters, even those who appear only briefly such as the FBI profiler are clearly depicted and seem like very real, believable people.
The big question is…can I recommend this book? Not without telling you one more thing. It is violent. Gruesomely, descriptively, gratuitously violent. Frankly it’s one of the books I always think about when people talk about crime fiction being too violent. And although I did enjoy it I’ve not picked up the sequel and have no intention of doing so. With Heartsick I didn’t know what to expect and by the time I realised just how bloody the book was I had been hooked by the story and the people but I wouldn’t be able to start a second book with the same mindset.