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Stealing his spleen and heart

THE SATURDAY READ

Sweetheart; A Thriller; Chelsea Cain; St. Martin's Minotaur: 336 pp., $24.95

September 20, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Though the Oregon sky may be somnolent, nothing else in Chelsea Cain's conjured Portland is. The forces that conspired to make Cain's "Heartsick" a bestselling page-turner last year have reunited in its sequel, "Sweetheart." There's a body come to light on Page 1, half-eaten by dogs and ants, the eyeholes "concave bowls of greasy, soaplike fat." At the scene is Det. Archie Sheridan, barely recovered from the ordeals he suffered at the hands of Gretchen Lowell (a.k.a. the Beauty Killer) in the flashbacks of "Heartsick." He is trying not to freak out because this body is in the same place he found the first Beauty Killer body. By Chapter 2, we're caught up with ace reporter Susan Ward just as she's about to blow the lid on a beloved state senator who apparently had sex years before with his then-14-year-old baby-sitter. Hours later both the senator and Susan's hard-drinking mentor are dead in a driving accident, bringing Archie and Susan back into each other's orbits.

And that's just the window dressing. The main narrative of "Sweetheart" follows Archie's attempts to rid himself of the love that dare not speak its name -- his pathological obsession with Gretchen. We discover through flashbacks and conversation that Gretchen, a serial murderer whom Archie spent years tracking, infiltrated Archie's team and took him hostage, torturing him almost to death only to revive him and turn herself in. She evaded the death penalty by agreeing to regularly give up the identities and locations of her many victims, but only to Archie, who is both drawn and repelled by her manipulations.

As events open in "Sweetheart," it's been a while since Archie has seen Gretchen; he is trying to piece together a normal life, cutting back on the Vicodin, moving back in with his ex-wife and their children. But it's all a charade; with Gretchen's signature heart literally carved into his chest, Archie is a man in perpetual torment. When events lead him to re-form the task force he used to track the Beauty Killer, what little normality there has been begins to slip. Then Gretchen escapes and things get really crazy.

With her preternatural grasp of pacing and ability to create vivid characters with astonishing economy, Cain expertly drives her narrative through standard murder fare -- more bodies are found in the wood, the senator scandal is being buried by Susan's editor for reasons complicated and unclear -- while managing to overlay it with Archie's emotional disintegration and the anguish Susan and the others around him feel as they watch. Although "Sweetheart" is a book that is easy to consume in one long gulp, it is not afraid to explore damage too severe to be undone.

But serial-killer love is tricky, and many of us have gone down this sequel path before with not-great results. The comparisons to the Hannibal Lecter-Clarice Starling relationship are valid; as with Lecter, Gretchen's power is in her ability to exploit people's weaknesses. She is also, we are repeatedly told, very beautiful, which never hurts.

Although it is easy to empathize with the attraction such a person might exude, it is more difficult to follow that attraction to the next level. When Thomas Harris chose to have Clarice run off with Hannibal and become his lover in "Hannibal," a collective "ewww" replaced the bated breath many readers had shared reading "Silence of the Lambs." Likewise, though this reader could get on board with Archie's drug-fueled fixation, it was a little more difficult to follow along as that obsession blossoms into love. Even a deep, dark, damaged love.

But when Gretchen escapes and threatens the lives of his children and still he continues to long, our connection to Archie begins to fray; when we learn that among her crimes was the murder and flaying of a 12-year-old, he lost me entirely.

You can't live without the gal who fed you drain cleaner and removed your spleen for the fun of it, OK; you can't live without the gal who skinned a kid and left the body in the backyard for the mother to find, I don't think so.

In attempting to humanize a serial killer, it is helpful to endow him or her with some sort of moral code, however twisted. Hannibal killed irritating people, Showtime's "Dexter" kills wicked people. Cain has chosen to reject that template, which is fine, perhaps even bold and brave. But if you want a reader to feel any attachment to your killer, even attachment by proxy through your obsessed detective, then the torturing and killing of children is out.

By piling on the horror of Gretchen's crimes, Cain obviously wants the reader to feel the depths to which Archie has sunk. But sometimes you can sink your hero too low; sometimes you can sink him to a place beyond believability and, more important, beyond redemption. There may be no happy endings for serial killers, but a reader needs to believe that the main character of what seems to be a burgeoning series has some sort of future. No one wants to be put in the position of hoping that a book's hero dies in the end.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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