Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

October 17, 2009

heartsick Plot summary (with spoilers): Archie Sheridan is damaged through and through. A Portland detective, he spent the first 10 years of his career tracking down a notorious female serial killer dubbed the “Beauty Killer” by local media. Then, he almost became a victim himself, as he fell into killer Gretchen Lowell’s clutches. He was subsequently tortured in the most brutal ways imaginable (ribs broken by hammering nails into them, forced to swallow a spoonful of drain cleaner per day to see how long he could hold out against the poison, etc.) for 10 long days — until Gretchen for some reason grew a conscience, called 911 to save Archie, and essentially turned herself in.

The aftermath was every bit as horrifying for Archie as the actual torture. He was so messed up by Gretchen that he couldn’t be around his wife and kids anymore. He got addicted to numerous different kinds of painkillers and could barely function until he popped a handful into his mouth. And, most shocking of all, he maintained contact with the beautiful Gretchen, seeming to fall in love with her. Archie visited her each Sunday without fail, telling himself that he did it for the locations of the bodies that she revealed whenever he came. But the real reason seemed to be much more personal.

To complicate things even more, Archie is asked by the mayor to return to work and head up another task force. There’s a new serial killer running amok in town, this one preying on 14-year-old girls. Three girls have gone turned up dead already, with more surely to follow. Archie will not only be under intense scrutiny from fellow detectives, but also from the media since he will be shadowed by 25-year-old reporter Susan Ward, who is going to write an in-depth profile on Archie.

As the novel progresses, the reader is treated to flashbacks of Archie’s time in captivity with Gretchen. We see what happened to him, but aren’t given any clues as to why he might have fallen in love with her — except for the usual “Stockholm Syndrome” explanation. In addition, Archie and his team are eventually able to piece together who the After School Strangler is, and get to him just before he takes Susan as his latest victim.


  • I liked the idea of having a female serial killer be one of the main characters here, and think perhaps Cain missed out on a better plot. Forget about the stupid After School Strangler; this novel should have been all about the first task force, the one set up for the Beauty Killer. That, and Archie’s captivity, would have made for a far more interesting story than what we ended up with.
  • I thought Cain did a good job on the actual storytelling. Given the direction she decided to go, with flashbacks intercut with current action, I thought she handled the transitions very well.


  • I didn’t like any of the characters in this novel, and think it’s because of Cain’s writing and the details she chose to reveal. Gretchen was supposed to be psycho and scary, but came off as a caricature more than anything else. She supposedly killed more than 200 people? And had several of her lovers do her killings for her because they were so intent on pleasing her? WTF? If the writer is going to drop bombshells like that, there better be plausible explanations attached. But there weren’t any.
  • The Susan Ward character annoyed me to no end. How many times did we have to hear about her stupid pink hair? How many times did she fret about the outfit that she chose to wear? How many times did she have to lament the fact that she always goes after unavailable men? God, I wanted to punch her in the face — or at least tell her to get a colon cleanse and lighten up!
  • The After School Strangler storyline might as well have been called The Afterthought Strangler for as much attention as Cain paid it. This was so clearly not the focus of the book that I soon came to find the storyline — as well as Susan Ward’s participation in it — to be a frustrating interruption of the main event.
  • The pat ending was just too convenient for everyone, wasn’t it? Paul Reston was under Gretchen’s control the whole time? He just happened to be a teacher that Susan Ward slept with? Susan Ward just happened to be the reporter assigned to cover Archie’s return to work? Uh huh.

My Rating:

Based on the rave reviews I read, I was hoping that Heartsick by Chelsea Cain would turn out to be a riveting suspense novel that I wouldn’t be able to put down. But it felt more like an extended episode of Criminal Minds, albeit more gruesome, and didn’t strike me as anything original. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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