Chelsea Cain is the author of a frightening and gory set of books known as the Beauty Killer trilogy, which introduced her to the literary fiction world outside of Seattle (where she was already known from her newspaper bylines) as well as the brilliantly deranged Gretchen Lowell. There was some question as to what Cain would do for a follow-up to these three unforgettable novels --- HEARTSICK, SWEETHEART and EVIL AT HEART --- and the answer, from at least one source I know of, was to tone it down just a bit. She does just that in THE NIGHT SEASON. It's not as graphically violent as its predecessors, but just as terrifying.
Archie Sheridan, who found over the course of three books that attracting the attention of --- and being attracted to --- Lowell was a two-edged sword, is still recovering from the events that took place in EVIL AT HEART, even if he has not fully gotten his feelings for Lowell or for the oddly endearing Susan Ward fully resolved. His recuperation time, though, is abruptly shattered when the city of Portland is put at risk by the rapidly rising waters of the Willamette River. Several bodies have already been discovered, as has a skeleton belonging to an apparent victim of a similar disaster that occurred in the late 1940s. What gets Sheridan out on the street is that several of the modern-day victims were actually poisoned before they died. And when a member of Portland's finest, someone close to Sheridan, falls victim to the poisoner, it becomes personal.
There is a real mystery here, made up of confounding parts. For one thing, the cops are unable to immediately identify the poison. When they do, the puzzle becomes even more perplexing. How does the killer administer it? And what is the significance of the tiny key that is left behind with each victim? Meanwhile, the river keeps rising, people continue dying, and, to make matters worse, the life of a young boy who has been missing for far too long appears to hang in the balance. And then, just when Sheridan almost has the killer in his grasp, things get worse.
If you sampled Cain's trilogy and thought the level of graphic violence was a bit too high, you'll find that THE NIGHT SEASON eschews the gore level without sacrificing suspense. On the other hand, if you enjoyed her imaginative dismemberments, performed in the persona of the lovely Gretchen Lowell, the absence of such antics will not affect your enjoyment of the book one bit. I read it in one sitting, not because I had to, but because I was compelled to do so by the level of writing and plotting. Cain is so good that there is a mystery you won't even realize is a mystery until the very end. The book answers the question of whether or not she can write a thriller without dipping her manuscript in crimson font. And she can do so without breaking a sweat, at least to all appearances.
THE NIGHT SEASON is a thriller, a mystery (or two), and a potentially intelligent action flick. Cain is brilliant, whether she's covering her characters in sadistic gore or taking them step by step through a puzzling mystery. Dark, smart and terrifying in places, it will give you so many bangs for your buck that it should have been published in the shape of an automatic rifle. And for Cain's next novel, I am counting the days. And the hours.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 4, 2011