Evil at Heart
If one was to attempt to name the most frightening aspect of
Chelsea Cain’s latest novel, it would be difficult to pick a
winner. Cain, a reporter for The Oregonian, exploded into
the world of thriller literature with HEARTSICK, the first
installment in a trilogy featuring female serial killer Gretchen
Lowell and homicide detective Archie Sheridan. This debut went into
dark places that seemed almost unimaginable, with Sheridan pursuing
Lowell, her true identity unknown at that point, even as he was
being seduced by her. In SWEETHEART, Lowell is in prison for the
majority of the book, yet controlling actions in and out of her
jail cell while continuing to manipulate Sheridan.
Lowell is physically absent for most of EVIL AT HEART, yet one
cannot turn the pages without feeling her presence in the room. And
therein lies one of the most startling aspects of the novel: the
paranoia that informs practically every sentence of the story.
This, combined with Cain’s unflinching, graphic descriptions
of unspeakable deeds and (perhaps most significantly)
Lowell’s ascendancy to folk-hero status, makes EVIL AT HEART
one of the most frightening books you will ever read.
Lowell escaped from prison at the conclusion of SWEETHEART,
leaving Sheridan in shreds physically, emotionally and personally.
As the new book begins, his body bears the scars of sharp-edged
indignities that Lowell visited upon him. Emotionally he is
obsessed with her; and personally his marriage is over, his wife
and children having fled Portland to new lives in Washington State.
Sheridan has surrendered to a controlled and safe life as an
inpatient in a mental hospital. Meanwhile, a cult of personality
has inexplicably exploded around Lowell. There are guided Beauty
Killer bus tours to the sites of her murders; Lowell’s image
is on the covers of leading regional and national magazines; and
everything from restaurants to nail salons are naming products and
services after her. Yet she remains tantalizingly, maddeningly out
Sheridan is brought out of his seemingly safe cocoon and back to
the world when it appears that Lowell, reneging on a promise that
she had made to Sheridan, has begun killing again. Bodies are
discovered at three different sites; the description of at least
one of them, a roadside rest stop, will almost certainly give you
pause every time you have the urge or need to stop at one during
your next long-distance motor trip. Henry Sobol, Sheridan’s
steady and dryly acerbic partner, is there to help Sheridan take
his tentative steps back into the world and police work, as is
Susan Ward, whose feelings for him remain undefined though very
much in the moment.
While investigating the latest series of killings, Sheridan
finds past horrific murders linked to Lowell that were never
officially solved. Lowell is in touch with Sheridan, but is as
enigmatic and, indeed, as erotically charming as ever, even as the
horror of what and who she is shines through while remaining a
haunting presence just off the page. When Lowell does appear, it is
in a cataclysmic conclusion that raises more questions than it
answers, leaving the reader gasping and haunted.
I somehow cannot bring myself to believe that we have seen the
last of any of the characters who manage to reach the final pages
intact. Regardless, EVIL AT HEART, as with the previous books,
stands as a landmark exploration of the darkest reaches of the
human psyche, where love, passion, and something unnamable and
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011