Saturday, July 05, 2008

Chelsea Cain

It's been a long time since my last substantial post. I've been doing a lot of reading, but between all the manuscripts and a new (and too banal to mention) category I've been obsessively researching, I haven't had much time for the type of book that I get excited enough to share here. I know, woe is me, right? Enough whining.

The point is that I've only read a handful of published books worth mentioning in the last few months. One was The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. It was really fun in a cranial sort of way. It's all about elevators. If you think about it (and Colson Whitehead obviously has), we owe a lot to elevators - like the way we live and the shape of our cities. The Intuitionist is set in a city reminiscent of a newly industrialized New York, where people really appreciate elevators, and elevator inspectors are very highly regarded. You need a post-graduate degree to be one, and within the elite study of elevators there are two camps: the Empiricists, who inspect the elevators in the way you'd expect, by going to the engine room and checking out the machinery manually, and the Intuitionists, who just ride in the elevator, and "intuit" whether or not everything is alright. This story focuses on an Intuitionist who also happens to be the only black female elevator inspector. She gives a clean bill of health to an elevator that malfunctions and crashes the very next day. How could this happen? She's a master Intuitionist, but many people want to see her fail, because of her race and her sex, and discredit Intuitionism altogether. The mystery unfolds from there. And the reader does a lot of thinking about elevators.

Though here's something that the author doesn't address: without elevators, would we still have stair masters? As much as I have this new appreciation for elevators, they are probably responsible for some loathsome gym equipment.

There are also people who inspect escalators in the book, but they are looked down upon by everyone, and given no respect.

Other than the Colson Whitehead book, I've read two novels that I hope are the beginning of a continuing series: Chelsea Cain's Heartsick and Sweetheart. These are serial killer thrillers that feature a brilliant and psychotic female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, who is known as the Beauty Killer (because she's gorgeous, and also because of the way she carves up her victims). She's tortured and murdered nearly 200 people, and when the novel opens she is in jail. Her 200th victim was Detective Archie Sheridan, who led the Beauty Killer task force, and was kidnapped and tortured by Gretchen for ten days before she saved his life by calling the paramedics and turning herself in. When the novel opens, a badly damaged and Vicodin-addicted Archie has been assigned to a lead a new task force to catch a new serial killer. Archie consults with Gretchen every Sunday during visiting hours, partly because she continues to give up the location of her corpses, but mostly because he has a strange and unhealthy attachment to her and just can't stay away.

It's obvious that this set-up owes a lot to Thomas Harris' Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs (Cain even gives Harris a shout-out in one of her scenes, when Gretchen snidely calls the reporter visiting her "Clarice"). Sure, it's derivative, but I wasn't too bothered by that. Cain manages to distinguish her plot just enough, and gives the story some great twists that make it fresh. Also, the dialog between Archie and Gretchen is just great.

There are two point of views in the novel, Archie's, and the aforementioned reporter, Susan Ward's. For reasons that aren't clear until later in the book, Archie decides to have Susan profile him as he goes about hunting this new serial killer, dubbed the After School Killer. Interspersed with the present day action are flashbacks to the ten days when Archie was tortured by Gretchen. She is one sadistic homicidal psychopath, and Cain perfectly balances conveying the torture scenes with detail, but keeping them bearable for squeamish readers. There's a lot going on in Heartsick, and I found myself equally interested in the murder investigation, Archie and Gretchen's past, and the way that Susan's own past turns out to be relevant. Gretchen is revealed as a mastermind worthy of our awe and fear, and this novel kept surprising me, even after the murder is solved. Cain is a writer who really knows how to craft a plot.

I began reading Sweetheart right on the heels of Heartsick. Though Sweetheart doesn't come out until September, I'd picked up a galley in London, and the back cover copy promises that "Chelsea Cain is back... and so is Gretchen. She's on the loose, and looking for her SWEETHEART." Cheesy and tawdry, I know, but I was still alarmed and totally amped. Gretchen escapes from jail?! Awesome. Actually she doesn't escape until page 133, about a third of the way through the book, and the story dragged a bit for me until then. (It could have been the edition I was reading though, which was a really bad UK galley with a lot of typesetting errors, a strange squat shape, and an extremely stiff spine that took me at least a third of the book to break in.)

So, the book opens with a murder investigation underway. A senator is dead and there are unidentified bodies found in the woods. These deaths are certainly tied to a story that Susan Ward was just about to break - the biggest of her career. Before I go on, let me say something about Susan. While Archie has the most-physically-and-emotionally-fucked-up-character slot secured, Susan has her own flaws. She has this chronic tendency to sleep with much older men - authority figures - which she's currently trying to get over by sleeping with her co-worker. Her hair color fluctuates between pink and turquoise. She has a crush on Archie that she can't hide. I love that the three main characters in this book - Archie, Susan, and Gretchen - are all pretty screwed up.

The story really takes off once Gretchen gets free, and I found it impossible to put it down. Archie had stopped his Sunday visits to Gretchen, moved back in with his wife and children, and seemed to be on his way back to a somewhat normal life. All this progress in undone once Gretchen escapes, and his obsession with her consumes him once again. Quite brilliantly, Cain has hidden something about Archie and Gretchen's past that she only reveals about two-thirds of the way through this book. I just loved this reveal, and thought it was so smart of Cain to hold it back until late in the second book, when readers will assume that we've already learned everything there was to know about their "relationship" in the first book. This extra backstory adds yet another dimension to Archie's tortured character. He engineers a dangerous way to capture her, though the reader is never sure what his plan entails. This is a risky choice on Cain's part, and one that usually pisses me off when other authors try and pull it off - I really hate it when the main characters hide stuff from me. But it works here - maybe because the point of view is third person, maybe because Archie is such the secretive type, or maybe because there's so much mystery surrounding Archie and Gretchen that it seemed natural for me to be in the dark a bit. In any case, the plan Archie concocts is a good one, and relies heavily on Susan to use her smarts and reporting skills to save him from himself and Gretchen.

I won't say anymore. If you like dark thrillers, these books are for you.

7 comments:

Thorn said...

I just put Heartsick on my Audible.com wishlist. Thanks for the head's up.

Sarah said...

I just pulled Heartsick off my bookshelf (got it from the BookSense white box) and will start it tonight. Thanks for the rec.

JES said...

Glad to see you're back. I'm new here as of sometime in June, but have read a good deal of your posts and was hoping this wouldn't wither on the vine.

Looks like you've got two votes for Heartsick. I'd probably go for The Intuitionist (although the background -- the two approaches to life/their profession) sounds a lot like Neal Stephenson's newest one... Avent-something maybe? Great minds, same channels.

clindsay said...

YOU'RE BACK! (Yay.)

Sarah said...

Can I borrow Sweetheart? I cruised through Heartsick and gave it to my mom. Want more.

Book Cannibal said...

Sarah: Mo took Sweetheart back to California with her. She got hooked on Heartsick over the weekend, and insisted on taking the sequel. Then she sent me a very long text message about how she didn't really like it that much after all (too soap operish, she says). Rude! Maybe she'll mail it back to me, but that could take all summer...

clindsay: thanks for welcoming me back! I'm going to try and post more regularly.

jes: we just got the new Neal Stephenson into our office - ANATHEM. It's huge - 900 pages, and I'm intimidated. It came with a promotional CD though, so maybe I'll ease into that way...

Thorn said...

Read Heartsick...review on blog. Almost snagged Sweetheart as an ARC, but got the latest Andrew Pyper instead. Will check out Sweetheart when it releases, but I hope Cain makes some changes.