HEARTSICK is a dark, beautiful beast of a book that comes
quietly out of nowhere and devours you. Its author, Chelsea Cain,
is heretofore best known for her weekly column in The
Oregonian and as the author of CONFESSIONS OF A TEEN SLEUTH, a
Nancy Drew parody. None of this, however, will prepare you for her
latest work. In a year full of excellent novels, this may be the
best of them all.
It begins where most thrillers end, with Archie Sheridan, a
homicide detective from Portland, Oregon, strapped to a table and
in extremely dire, terminal straits at the hands of Gretchen
Lowell, a psychiatrist who he realizes all too late is an extremely
prolific serial killer. This opening scene is actually a flashback;
more backstory is revealed, but the present of HEARTSICK takes
place subsequent to Sheridan’s rescue, Lowell’s
surrender and her incarceration.
Sheridan, in the aftermath of his torture and near-execution by
Lowell, is seriously damaged. He is having flashbacks, addicted to
prescription medication, and estranged from his wife and daughter.
And he is hopelessly --- and bizarrely --- tied to Lowell as well.
Lowell cut a deal: she stays alive and tells only Sheridan
where all of her bodies are buried. Sheridan goes to see her once a
week, hoping to get new information each time, but one senses that
he has another, darker motive to these visits. There is a
legitimate question here as to who is free and who is
Still mentally and physically recovering from his ordeal at
Lowell’s hands (among other things), Sheridan is abruptly
called off of his medical leave when teenage girls begin being
abducted off the streets of Portland and murdered. No one has a
clue as to who the “after school killer” might be, but
the mayor, the police department and the good citizens of Portland
want him caught immediately. Sheridan, warts and all, is back in
his element heading up the police task force. He is also being
shadowed by Susan Ward, an “embedded reporter” if you
will, who is doing a feature on Sheridan’s return to duty
after his high-profile ordeal and “capture” of Lowell.
Ward is hiding secrets of her own, some of which might impact
Sheridan’s case, if they are not the product of her own
Sheridan, damaged as he is, is possessed with an uncanny instinct
and dogged determination. The biggest obstacles he has to face are
his considerable addictions to medication and, unbelievably enough,
to Lowell. As Sheridan slowly but inexorably closes in on the after
school killer, the narrative shifts back and forth in time until it
merges --- with unexpected results.
Cain’s dedication is “[f]or Marc Mohan, who loved me
even after he read this book.” Indeed, HEARTSICK is twisted,
violent and graphic. While I read it, I kept asking myself,
“How does she think of this?!” I’m not
sure I would want to know the answer if I was keeping extended
company with her. But the book is also ingeniously plotted,
brilliantly written and addictively readable. And Cain isn’t
done with Lowell and Sheridan, not by a long shot. While HEARTSICK
is complete in itself, there are just enough unresolved issues
hanging at the end to leave the reader wondering, and yearning like
Sheridan, for the next installment.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011