I vary my reading: fiction to non-fiction, literary to commercial. I enjoy discovering new writers and tomes, and while I avoid the overhyped, I lurk on certain author and publishing blogs hoping to learn about what the unwashed masses and mainstream media have overlooked.
Granted, Chelsea Cain doesn’t exactly fit the ‘underground’ mold, and she’s on her third novel, but seeing as I rarely dip into the thriller/mystery genre (can we say ‘formulaic’), it was only the mention of her serial killer Gretchen Lowell that got my attention.
“Heartsick” and “Sweetheart“, and now her latest “Evil at Heart”, which I haven’t read. These books are not for the faint of heart. Seriously, I’m a Stephen King fan from way back, but some of the details here made me cringe. But even that I have to admire; Cain’s ability to throw down the filters and let her freak flag fly (or Gretchen’s, as it were)
The structure of the author’s debut, “Heartsick”, is impressive. Not only is it woven with a huge chunk of back story, almost as if there was another book preceding it, she did it in such a way to not keep it captivating and pertinent. (Prospective and current authors know that ‘back story’ is considered almost evil in contemporary books. “Madame Bovary” would not survive) She also took the risk of switching from past to present tense in a very unorthodox fashion – a choice most readers won’t notice – but it put a stylistic exclamation point on the horror suffered by Detective Archie Sheridan at Gretchen Lowell’s hands. And, taking a page from Thomas Harris, Ms. Lowell spends the entire novel in prison yet somehow manages to wreak havoc in a completely repulsive kind of way.
I have no way of knowing if Ms. Cain had the ‘idea’ for “Sweetheart” while writing “Heartsick”, but my experience is that most ‘sequels’ never measure up to their predecessor. They feel tacked on, mismatched somehow like patched wallpaper. Cain managed, however, to follow-up on the characters and subplots introduced in “Heartsick” seamlessly, but again, in unexpected ways. For that, I give her a gold star.
However (and there always is one, yes?), I wasn’t as impressed by the climax/end of her second novel. While the first seemed like a complete entity, the second fell prey to the Welcome-to-the-series-that-will-never-end-as-long-as-the-money-keeps-rolling-in syndrome. While mucked-up protagonists can have longevity (see House M.D.), Sheridan’s degree of mucked-up-ness is so absolute that his condition must change in order for him to A. survive and B. stay remotely competent and interesting. And seeing as all the dangling plot lines from “Heartsick” wrapped up in “Sweetheart”, Cain will have to create new ones; another sign she’s falling into the rhythm of other long-series mystery writers.
One final note: As pleased as I was to see members of a writers’ group thanked in Cain’s “Heartsick” acknowledgements, I was just as disappointed to notice their absence at the end of “Sweetheart”. It’s sad to contemplate that Ms. Cain abandoned the group following her success instead of giving back with what she’s learned and achieved. Perhaps there’s another reason the group was omitted from her second novel. Perhaps I’m underestimating Ms. Cain’s regard. Let’s hope so.