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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Well-Begun and All Done: Heartsick

The book: Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

Opening line: Archie doesn't know for sure that it's her until that moment.

Closing line: The last thing he was aware of was Debbie lifting it out of his hand and putting it back on the table.

The novel in one line: Silence of the Lambs with a middle-aged male detective and a stunningly beautiful female Hannibal Lecter. We're thinking George Clooney as Archie (and not just because we have an unhealthy fixation on George Clooney, WOS) and Uma Thurman as Gretchen Lowell, the merciless serial killer.

In fairness to Chelsea Cain, she makes no attempt to disguise her inspiration: Gretchen, like Hannibal, is a psychiatrist (of sorts--she doesn't actually have the medical degree), and she is even aware of her literary forebear. When a young reporter, Susan Ward (Julia Stiles? We just finished watching season 5 of "Dexter"), asks her about about a new serial killer, Gretchen replies: "'Want me to get inside his head for you? Sorry, Clarice. Can't help you.'"

We're not ragging on the author for the familiarity of her plot elements. Since at least 1991, any book or movie about serial killers almost necessarily has to be blurbed as "the best since Silence of the Lambs." It's to Chelsea Cain's credit that she acknowledges it and moves on--and has written an exciting novel, as well.

In Heartsick, someone is killing high-school girls in Portland, Oregon. Detective Archie Sheridan is called upon to lead the hunt for the "After-School Strangler." This will be his first case since he caught Gretchen Lowell--or, rather, since she caught him. The opening line refers to Archie's realization that the beautiful Gretchen, who had insinuated herself into Archie's search for the "Beauty Killer," is in fact the appropriately nicknamed psychopath his task force has been hunting. Gretchen spends the next ten days or so horrifically torturing Archie, before calling an ambulance for him and turning herself in. Although he survives, Archie is severely scarred--both physically and emotionally--by his encounter with Gretchen. The relationship between Archie and Gretchen--as was true of the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal--is the most compelling part of the novel. The main plotline is of secondary importance.

The opening and closing lines provide nice bookends for this novel. At the beginning, Archie becomes aware of the identity of his murderous nemesis, just before falling into a drugged sleep from which he assumes he will awaken only to be killed. At the end, he falls into a more peaceful slumber, with at least a possibility of redemption. Of course, there have been a couple of sequels already, so he probably can't rest for long.

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