Sunday, December 21, 2008

A serial killer for Portland

Seeing as how winter has shut down Portland making it difficult to enjoy the season, it's a fine time to read a book about Portland, or at least a thriller set in Portland. Chelsea Cain's Heartsick is a solid, entertaining serial killer story set in Portland. You might think all the life has been squeezed out of the serial killer genre, but Cain manages to tell a new and engaging story. It seems someone is killing school girls and the police have to call up damaged cop Archie Sheridan to solve it. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, Sheridan agrees to be shadowed by reporter Susan Ward.

The initial set up is reminiscent of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, with a cop visiting the brutal serial killer he caught and who brutalized him. Cain is aware of this, even directly referencing the book, but she takes a different tack. Her killer is in some ways even more malevolent than Lechter and the cop here and the relationship between the cop and killer is more twisted.

I thought the plotting and the resolution of the plot threads were excellent. Cain does a good job in moving the story forward and in misdirecting the reader. The only thing I didn't like about the book was how she dealt with Portland. You can't go a few pages in the book without running into some kind of reference to the city, usually a place name or fact about the town. Susan Ward, who worked as a feature writer, is given to spouting random facts about the city when conversations run down. There is so much, it feels like Cain saw this as her one shot at promoting the city.

All this information is interesting, but doesn't create the sense of the city that someone like George Pelecanos does with DC or James Ellroy did with his (nightmare version of) Los Angeles. Cain has written a followup novel called Sweetheart and I hope she will write more. I also hope she dials back on the name checking and helps people understand what life is like here.

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