Heart Sick, Chelsea Cain (review & giveaway)

Update: The reading went very well, but it was crowded. Chelsea grew up here, and half the audience was made up of her old teachers and classmates. It felt like a reunion — a happy one. I’ll leave this drawing for the signed copy of her book open for another couple days.

On a related matter: I still haven’t heard from the two people who won the paperback edition of Queen of Swords. If I don’t hear from them by Tuesday, I’ll drawn two other names.

Note: giveaway details at the end of this post.

There are a number of authors out there who write crime/thrillers really well. Some of my favorites are John Sandford, Lee Child and Stephen Hunter. Laura Lippman and Thomas Harris are also favorites, and they are by far the best stylists, by which I mean their prose is as impressive as their plotting and characterization. The first three are superior strorytellers, but with a minimalist approach to prose.

There are many authors out there who write crime/thrillers that don’t work — at least for me. These are usually novels that derive from the standard murder-serial killer-care worn detective model. Sometimes these authors have a three or even six great novels in a series, but then they lose the thread. However, if the books have sold, they will usually continue writing. I’m sure you can think of some names that go in this list.

[asa book]0312368461[/asa] I pick up a new crime/thriller author with some trepidation. Willing to be surprised, certainly, but not very hopeful. There aren’t many Laura Lippman’s out there. Then the day before yesterday I picked up Chelsea Cain’s Heart Sick.

The best thriller writers are the ones who don’t tell you everything, but let you figure out some things for yourself. They also avoid stereotypes, and make the primary characters stand out. Cain does everything right in this novel, to the extent that I sometimes stopped reading to marvel.

This is the story of Archie Sheridan, a Portland, Oregon detective and Gretchen Lowell, who is in prison and will be there for the rest of her life for a series of very disturbing torture-murders. Archie, who was the lead detective on the task force looking for the serial killer is also Gretchen’s last victim. He is the only one to survive, despite his horrific treatment, but not because the police burst into the room where he’s being held. The circumstances of his long, ten day captivity and Gretchen’s decision to call an ambulance and turn herself in are given to us in small chunks, while the primary plot is evolving.

Archie visits Gretchen in prison every Sunday. The alleged reason is that she doles out information about the burial spots of her victims a crumb at a time, and only to Archie. The real reason is that Archie cannot shake himself loose of her — not in a sexual way, but for reasons far more complex and interesting.

After a two year recovery, Archie, addicted to pain killers, comes back to the Portland police department to head up a new serial killer task force. This one takes young girls, rapes and murders them, and leaves them to be found. At the same time, Archie agrees to let a journalist shadow him, with the goal of her writing a four part investigative piece about him, the hero cop. Susan Ward knows this assignment can make her career, but she is as vulnerable around Lowell as Archie is.

Cain does a masterful job of tying the different threads together in a way that surprised me. The rarest kind of surprise, too, when my urge is to read the book from the beginning right away, to see what clues I missed.

Coincidentally, Chelsea Cain comes from the town where I live, and tonight she’s reading at our local independent, Village Books. Such a coincidence needs to be acknowledged, so I am giving away a signed first edition of Heart Sick, along with one of my own signed novels, to some lucky person whose name I pull at random from the comments to this post. If you’d like to tell us whether you read thrillers, and which authors you prefer, that would be interesting — but not necessary. Just throw your name in the hat, if you like.

I have the feeling that Chelsea Cain will be a great success, so a signed first edition of her first novel is a great thing to have, even if you’re not so much a fan of thrillers.