Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: HeartSick by Chelsea Cain

Title: HeartSick
Author: Chelsea Cain
Setting: Present Day Portland, Oregon
Category: Mystery/Suspense
Series: Book 1 of 2 (currently)

Lately I've been in a bit of a reading slump. Nothing that I've come across has been able to keep my attention for very long. Enter HeartSick, and I think I've been cured. This story was able to pull me out of my slump by offering up a dark story with with a truly gritty feel, a tortured protagonist, narcissist serial killer, and plucky, young journalist with a flair for the extreme. With all these things working for it, I was glued to HeartSick - and even though it wasn't as good as I would have liked, it was able to jump start my reading again.

Detective Archie Sheridan spent ten years heading the task force of detectives that tracked the Beauty Killer, a twisted serial killer who tortured her victims within an inch of their life before killing them. Archie is tricked and captured by Gretchen Lowell, the serial killer he had been tracking. After spending days as the subject of her horrific abuse, Archie is on his death bed and is subsequently saved by the woman who killed him. Gretchen saved Archie's life by giving herself up and calling in the police for help. Two years have passed since Gretchen's apprehension and Archie is still a mess due to the torture he suffered at her hands. He's addicted to prescription pain medication, has left his wife and kids and is in regular contact with Gretchen Lowell. It is safe to say that Archie is a headcase.

Now, with a new serial killer stalking the streets of Portland, Oregon, preying on teenage girls, Archie has been called off his extended medical leave to head the task force for the After School Strangler. Acting as Archie's shadow on his first case since Gretchen Lowell, is journalist Susan Ward, who was hand picked by Archie to be the sole inside reporter on the case. Susan, a sassy young journalist with bright pink hair and a string of issues almost as long as Archie's, is pulled from a story she's been secretly working on to follow Archie, a big deal for any Portland journalist. Susan takes advantage of the opportunity to work alongside the infamous Archie Sheridan. She dives into the case, green as a newborn, but Susan is capable and tough. In other words, she has the makings of good journalist. Together, Archie and Susan embark on a case that not only tests their mettle for their respective careers, but opens up past demons that both want to remain buried.

HeartSick is told from a few different point of views. Switching from Archie's third person to alternating chapters of his captivity told in third person present. Susan and Anne, a criminal profiler working on the case, also have a third person point of view. Susan was an interesting character, she's both capable and self destructive. Her father died when she was at a pivotal point in her life and Susan has found a way to act out ever since. Part of this acting out shows in her compulsive need to sleep with married or complicated men. Anne is working on the After School Strangler case almost as a way of making up for her faulty profiling in the Beauty Killer case. She had Gretchen pegged as a man from the start and feels that her mess up is what caused Archie to be taken by Gretchen in the first place.

While there were a few different threads going in this story, by far, the most notable of them was the twisted relationship between Archie and Gretchen. It was at once intriguing and repelling. Reading about them was the equivalent to watching a train wreck: I wanted to look away but the twisted, macabre of it all kept my eyes glued to the oncoming disaster. It is obvious that Archie is suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Stress syndrome, and as Gretchen so aptly points out: Stockholm Syndrome, and probably a few other syndromes. He's a functioning junkie and only finds true solace in Gretchen, the woman who pretty much killed the man he once was.

Gretchen is smart, and continues to be able to manipulate Archie from behind bars. She plays her hand wisely, giving Archie just enough information on her past unsolved killings to keep Archie coming back to her. But Gretchen lacks the appeal that made her predecessors, like Hannibal Lecter, immensely likeable in their craziness. At the end of Silence of the Lambs one was torn as to whether they should root for Hannibal or Clarice, at the end of HeartSick, I wanted Gretchen dead and for Archie to be the one to kill her. Though Archie was the books saving grace - his struggle with right and wrong, and the man he was vs the man he'd become made him the most compelling character - there were points where I wanted him to suck it up and show Gretchen who was boss. He did sort of, but I have a feeling that it won't last for long.

If I could sum up HeartSick in one word, it would be 'interesting.' I found all of the working threads to be just that, but even though my interest was held, the story lacked the punch that I was waiting/hoping for. The After School serial killer case was a bit predictable, and I felt it drug along in places. There was, at times, too much description and then at other times, too little. The eventual tie up of the mystery was unremarkable and most of the characters were blah. But even with all these things working against the story, I found it very readable, and finished the book in two sittings. Then, upon closing the it, I was ready to read the sequel. So HeartSick had that certain something that worked for me, even though I had problems with it.

That said, I do plan on continuing with the followup Sweetheart. I'm interested in seeing where the story that Susan was working on prior to being assigned to Archie, goes. I also hope to see Archie with a stronger backbone where Gretchen is concerned, and I wouldn't mind seeing Gretchen fry. Archie was bordering a little too close to sad sack in this book and sad sack's are not that interesting to read about. And Gretchen was a little too ingenious, too perfect, too unreal for me to feel anything for her other than dislike. Grade B-.

Visit Chelsea Cain's website. Read an excerpt here.


  1. Wait till you read Heartsick! Sweetheart was too good for words because it was so disturbing with the relationship between Gretchen and Archie. Cain takes it one step further with Heartsick.

  2. Hum... should I try or not? Great review by the way. I picked this up the other day and put it down now I'm wishing I would have held on to it.

  3. You have to read Sweetheart! Creepily awesome. :)

  4. Hmmm, indeed sounds interesting LOL. I guess I'll look this one up at the library... but I don't know, it sounds really twisted! :)

  5. Loved the review. I've got this on my TBR pile but haven't been in the mood for a creepy mystery just yet.

  6. Hi Kate, I'm looking forward to reading the next book. But I'm a little scared that Archie might regress, though.

    Hi Sarai, thanks! I think this one is a must read if you're in the mood for a dark and twisted story.

    Wendy! I remember you taking about these books a little while back. I'm waiting until Sweetheart comes out in paperback before reading it. I don't trust that I'll like it enough to buy in hardback.

    Nath, it is very twisted and will squick you out.

    Thanks Leslie, this is definetly a book to read when you're in the mood for something creepy. If you try to force it, I doubt that you'll like it at all.

  7. I'll have to read this for its creepiness! :D

  8. Serial killers freak me out so I think I'll pass on this one. But it was a great review! :) AND, I'm glad it kick started you back into reading!

  9. Jace, read it! I would like to know what you think about it.

    Thank you, Tracy. I'm glad it got me reading again, too.

  10. Enjoyed both books about the same. They are not without their flaws, however. --Keishon

  11. I have both of these books in hardback and still have yet to read them. Right now I've got Beverly Barton's latest going, but may have to pick up HEARTSICK soon. Of course, I've been saying that since Wendy first started talking about it.

  12. Hi Keishon, I have a feeling that I will like Sweetheart about as much as I liked this one. At least I hope I do.

    Hi Amy, I went out and bought HeartSick after I read Wendy's thoughts on the books, and I let it sit forever before finally getting to it. Whenever you get around to reading both, I hope you enjoy them.

  13. Although I understand this is a well-written book, I'm going to pass. Creepy just doesn't do it for me. Stays in my head for too long. Good review. I like the honesty.

    By the way, I would like to give you an award: This Is A Fabulous Blog. See my post here: http://joyfuillyretired.wordpress.com/2009/01/30/award

  14. Hi Margot, I completely get what you mean by creepy stories remaining with you long after you finish the book. I'm the same way and always have to follow up a thriller with a light read.

    Thank you for the award!

  15. I liked this book but wasn't thrilled with it. It definitely has a high creepy factor with Gretchen and Archie's relationship. I will eventually read the 2nd book when I spot it at the library. Great review!

  16. Hi Samantha, I'd say that I didn't like the book as much as I thought I would after reading all of the hype surrounding it, but I liked it. If that makes any sense.