I am not into bloody, gory, serial killer novels, with the exception of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter - a real favorite of mine, although I wouldn't want to have lunch with him! However, author Chelsea Cain has come up with a new take on the genre. Her psychopath is a woman, Gretchen Lowell, and an extremely beautiful, brilliant woman at that.
We don't hear about many female serial killers, and that may be partly because women aren't as prone to commit this type of crime as men. Criminologist, Eric Hickey, has assembled the most extensive database on demography of serial murder. He states that, "88% of serial killers are male, 85% are Caucasian, and the average age when they claim their first victim is usually around 28.5. Women account for 15% of violent offenders (men are 6 times more likely to commit violent crimes)." Gretchen Lowell makes Ted Bundy look like a pussycat!
Detective Archie Sheridan is a hero in Portland, Oregon. Sheridan headed the so-called "Beauty Killer Task Force," and solved the case two years before the novel begins. It was proved, in a court of law, that Gretchen Lowell was responsible for the deaths of 26 victims. She claims she has murdered over 200 people, brutally torturing each one first. She has no profile and is an equal opportunity killer - blacks, whites, Hispanics, young, old, men, women - it doesn't matter. However, she does not victimize children. She is called "The Beauty Killer," not because she is beautiful, but because when the medical examiner was asked to categorize the condition of the first of many corpses, he whistled and said, "It's a beauty!" Autopsies are usually boring, according to the ME - mostly drownings and suicides. He is positively "tickled" by Gretchen's original work. It is just a coincidence that she's a "looker."
Archie was the lead detective on the case. He was also Gretchen's last victim. The FBI profiler was sure the killer was a man, an opinion which almost cost Sheridan his life. Ms. Lowell, posing as a psychiatrist, (she was an operating room nurse, in actuality), insinuated herself into the task force by claiming that she gave up her practice to write a book about the killings. She is clever enough to have created a portfolio of credible information which could be backed up when investigated. She told members of the team that she read about the gruesome murders and believed she could be of help. The case had been hell for the detectives, and Lowell "believed" she could talk with them - not counsel - just talk to ease their anxiety. They had been working on the case for ten years and their lack of success was really getting to all of them - all the dead, mutilated bodies, all the grieving, traumatized families waiting for closure, all the dead ends.
One afternoon, two years before, Archie visited Lowell in her office. His supposed colleague gave him coffee with milk, sugar and drugs. When he awakened he was strapped to a gurney in a basement, outfitted like an operating room, with medical-looking machinery, and a drain on the cement floor. His captor cooed in his ear, "Whatever you think this is going to be like, it's going to be worse." Now, two years later, Archie remembers all too clearly what was done to him. His spleen was removed without the benefit of anesthetics, nails were hammered into his rib cage, he was given enough drugs, when he wasn't being physically tortured, to become addicted to an impressive cocktail of medication - uppers, downers, you name it. His tormentor doodled on his chest with a scalpel, including a drawing of her signature, a heart...need I go on??
However, Gretchen did something different with Archie than she had done with other victims. She allowed him to live for 10 days, although he longed for death. She only gave her other victims 3 days before she mercifully killed them. When Archie began to die, she called 911, reported the situation and asked for immediate medical attention. Then she turned herself in to the police.
Archie lives, but after an extensive stay in the hospital, he is placed on long-term medical leave. He is too damaged psychologically to maintain his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, although he loves her and adores their two sons. The couple finally decide to separate. However the worst after effect of his kidnapping and torture is his compulsion to visit Gretchen Lowell in jail every Sunday. His excuse for these weekly visits is that she occasionally divulges another victim's name and place of burial. Her only condition for these revelations is that Archie maintain these weekly visits - thus she continues to exert control over him. Worse still, he is drawn to her sexually. His problem is perhaps a version of the Stockholm Syndrome, "a psychological response sometimes seen in abducted hostages, in which the hostage shows signs of loyalty to the hostage-taker, regardless of the danger or risk in which they have been placed."
I haven't included any spoilers, as this background information is divulged at the beginning of the novel. The plot of "Heartsick" involves a series of murders occurring in Portland, Oregon. Someone is killing and raping teenage girls. Gretchen Lowell does have a role here also, although she is in prison. The police reconvene the "Beauty Killer" task force and Archie is asked to come out of "temporary" retirement to be lead detective on the case. Although he maintains a professional demeanor, he is dysfunctional. To look at him, to work with him, no one would know. He is careful to keep his condition a secret, and, in fact, coming back to work helps keep him sane. He shovels drugs down his throat as if they were candy - just enough medication to relieve his physical and emotional pain, but not enough to really damage his kidneys and liver.
Pink-haired Oregon Herald reporter Susan Ward is assigned to the case and is allowed complete access to the murders, crime scenes, and to Archie - she is to work alongside him. Her goal is not only to write a series of articles, but to write a book also. Why does Archie allow a reporter complete access to the case? Why did Gretchen allow him to live? You will have to read the novel to find out.
This is a "can't put it down" read. The author writes well, the narrative clips along at a good pace, and Ms. Cain's characters are quite compelling. She really brings them to life on the page. The storyline is told in a series of flashbacks, from the present to the time when Archie was a captive. This book gives the term "psychological thriller" a new meaning."
If you like thrillers, you will love this one. Even the gory details are not a real deterrent, given the exciting plot, the depth of the characters and what makes them tick. Highly recommended.