What prevents Chelsea Cain’s debut novel, Heartsick, from being a run-of-the-mill psycho killer story? I mean, truthfully, it has all the ingredients: troubled, lead detective; smart-cookie reporter with a past, crazy killer who targets high school girls, red herrings.
Heartsick opens with a flashback. Detective Archie Sheridan has been tracking the ‘Beauty Killer’ for ten years and he has finally caught her; or rather, she’s caught him. Held captive in her basement, Gretchen Lowell spends ten days torturing Archie in a variety of inventive and gruesome ways. Strangely enough, Archie and Gretchen form a bond and it is that relationship which separates Heartsick from other novels in the genre.
Instead of killing Archie at the end of ten torturous days, Gretchen saves him by bringing him back to life and then calling 911. Then she does something even more remarkable- she turns herself in. She agrees to spill the beans about all the murders she’s committed over the years, but she’ll only talk to Archie. Their twisted relationship permeates all other aspects of his life, including his relationship with his wife, Debbie, and their two children. It’s also the most interesting thing about the book.
Archie is called back into service to lead a task force tracking a new serial killer. That part of the story treads familiar ground and is really only a framework for Cain to explore Gretchen and Archie’s co-dependancy. Archie is a complicated character; he loves his wife and children despite the fact that he no longer lives with them, he’s addicted to a variety of pain killers and sedatives, he’s as smart as hell. Gretchen is beautiful and cunning and one of the most evil characters you’re ever likely to meet. If you pick up Heartsick, do it because watching Gretchen and Archie navigate their twisted boundaries makes for riveting reading.