Sunday 27 December 2009

Chelsea Cain - Evil At Heart

Wow ! I was really looking forward to reading this book and I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. I first discovered the evil but strangely seductive serial killer Gretchen Lowell a couple of years ago in first book of the series, Heartsick. I was blown away by the compellingly complicated relationship binding together The Beauty Killer Gretchen and her victim-of-choice, Detective Archie Sheridan - a real mixture of emotions for Archie combining love and hate, desire, anger, longing, obsession, gratitude ... Gratitude because as well as torturing and maiming her victim, Gretchen also saved his life at the very end and handed herself in. She is so manipulative and toys so much with her plaything-victim Archie that he is left mentally and physically wrecked. The sheer cruelty and vindictiveness of a killer and torturer who carves lovehearts into her victims' flesh left me with goosebumps.

When the second volume of the series, Sweetheart, came out, I really wanted to read that too but due to my never-decreasing pile of to-be-read-and-reviewed books, I never got round to it. When a proof copy of Evil at Heart, the third book in the Archie and Gretchen series, arrived in the post, I decided to give it a go, even if I had missed an episode. Well, I still loved it, so it works perfectly as a stand-alone novel, even if you haven't read the previous books. There are numerous flashbacks to past episodes that fill in some of the background and remind you of some of the key episodes in the previous novels. And the scenes of a killer/torturer giving her victim painkillers as a treat if he docilely drinks his drain-cleaner is as chilling as the first time I read it.

Reading Evil At Heart is a bit like watching one of the Die Hard movies. After the first episode, you know what to expect but, like all big blockbusters, you still can't help but be blown away by the big budget special effects. Well, the same is true here - the surprise element may be gone but you still can't help but shudder at the sheer evil and warped nature of the crimes. And Chelsea Cain still has numerous twists and surprises up her sleeve to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The different angle in this episode is the superstar status of Gretchen who has been transformed into a seductive anti-hero by the press, with the general public lapping up the Gretchen-merchandise, "how-to-look-like-Gretchen" fashion articles in the magazines and bus-tours. On the internet, Gretchen Lowell fansites have sprung up all over the place too, so when a new spate of Gretchen-esque murders start up, nobody is sure if the Beauty Killer is back to her old tricks or whether some of her fans have started imitating their muse. Archie may come out of the psychiatric ward he has spent the past two months in, trying to recover from his Vicodin-addiction and Gretchen-obsession, but he is supposed to be a civilian and stay out of the whole affair. But Gretchen still has a hold on him and knows exactly which strings to tug to get him back into playing her cruel, twisted games.

Right up until the very end, you'll be trying to separate the truth from the lies and even at the book's close, we're still no closer to understanding Gretchen or her motivations. The greatest criminal profiler in the world would have a hard job defining who she really is, but she never fails to shock and horrify. Just when you think she can't do anything worse than what she has already done, she'll pull another warped mindgame or act of evil torture out of her bag and give you the shivers all over again.

I'm sure Chelsea Cain will keep the series going on for several more episodes, and I'll certainly be looking out for them every time.

star rating : 5/5
RRP : £6.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Pan (2 April 2010)
ISBN-10: 0330449826
ISBN-13: 978-0330449823

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