The Beauty Killer serial killer series is an international phenomenon by a hometown writer with a lot of Washington State in her background. Chelsea Cain was raised on an Iowa commune but eventually moved with her mother to Bellingham, Washington. After a peripatetic college career, Cain ended up in Portland, where, after careers in public relations and in journalism, she has settled down to write bestselling serial killer thrillers that are in part informed by her Washington experience – when she was a schoolgirl the Green River Killer was a daily presence in the media.
In Heartsick, Sweetheart, and now Evil at Heart (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $24.99, ISBN 978-0312368487), published on September 1, Cain has explored the tense and obsessional relations between a serial killer, one of her surviving victims who also happened to be the head of the police task force hunting her, his wife and children, his partner, and a young female crime reporter. It is rich, very human material, and one can see why the stories are popular with readers. What probably goes under-appreciated is how difficult it is to pull off such novels successfully.
For a shining example of how the American thriller can work superbly one can turn to no better writer than John D. MacDonald. His "color title" series of mysteries featuring Florida P.I. Travis McGee are good tales but the prose also evinces MacDonald's remarkable ability to tell a brisk story while keeping the morality of the piece at the forefront of the prose through the careful use of adjectives and metaphors. It's a form of indirection. He doesn't want to distract the reader from the pace of the tale but he also wants to get across his attitude to what is happening. So he does it subliminally. Here's an example.
In one of MacDonald's first person mysteries his narrator is on some kind of stake out. MacDonald writes, "I stood and waited. It was a long afternoon. I moved with the shade. The long gray of the Spanish moss hung from the oaks in the windless stillness. Chickens scratched at the baked yards of the cabins, and made the throaty sounds of heat, blurred and querulous. One of the women came out and slapped the soapy gray phlegm of dishwater into the yard and stood for a moment with the pan in her hand, looking toward me, telling me that I was out of time and place. She went back in and the door spring made a tiny musical note before it slapped the screen back into place. I stood in an alien place, our of focus to myself as though I had lost some part of my own identity and meaning. And I thought of other places and other times of waiting. The afternoon was long. And very hot." Writing about the passage, MacDonald notes that the woman with the dishwater is more vivid than the narrator. This was intentional. He was using her to tell the reader more about him. MacDonald goes on to note that a writer has to "tell 'em, but tell 'em as indirectly as possible, achieving your effect through a feeling of mood rather than being too explicit."
In another remarkable example that MacDonald offered up to aspiring mystery writers, he presented a particular passage as it appeared in a book, then rewrote it in "too explicit" mode. The difference is striking. The published passage is a suite of movements, objects, mood, sounds. The "re-write" is flat, informative, declarative prose that doesn't stick in the aspic of the mind, doesn't make the presentation of information live. As MacDonald puts it, there is more empathy in the descriptive, indirect passage. Most genre fiction is declarative. The best is descriptive.
I don't think I could offer higher praise than to say that Chelsea Cain writes as well as John D. MacDonald. You can find very similar effects in her novels. Take the beginning of the second in the series, Sweetheart. The hero of the books, troubled police detective Archie Sheridan, is inspecting the corpse of a woman found in Forest Park. The opening paragraph is a selection of scene setting details. A skeptical reader might say, Yeah, she's got to include all this stuff just to get to the corpse, just to get the story going, but it's all really irrelevant, like most of that kind of writing is.
But scene setting details are exactly the kind of elements that MacDonald would use to portray his moral universe as well as the physical world. The ferns and the chirping birds of the opening paragraph are essential not only to set up the twist at the end of the paragraph, but also to form a contrast with the unnatural stillness and whiteness of the corpse. Amid life there is death. The mindless animal and plant life of the park seems to mock the dead body, but also to emphasize its lifelessness. To stay alive means to fight for life itself. The lush greenery and the bucolic animal kingdom is apart of the life one fights for, yet it is also the source of hazards, "red in tooth and claw". Throughout the rest of this second novel, forests will be the sites of life and death struggles, nature out of control surrounding human beings struggling for control and fighting death. It's a lot to pack into a few opening paragraphs and Cain does it with admirable effortlessness. This passage – indeed the whole series – emphasizes with compassion the human cost of serial killing – while at the same time evincing elsewhere a sneaking helpless admiration for "evil" as a transgressive society-rattling act. A few chapters later there is another perfect "MacDonald moment" when Cain uses the absence of a previously overpowering spell of popcorn as a sad indice of a now-lost friend.
American genre fiction continues to be undervalued by everyone except the millions of readers who buy it. Crime fiction is in reality harder to do than mainstream fiction (although genre fiction really is the mainstream fiction) because it has to look easier. And then there is that wonderful flowing tone of voice that speaks with such confidence. "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard two men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better." Frankly, I would rather read a fine thriller – any random title in the Hard Case Crime series – over "literary" fiction, typical examples of which years later almost always embarrass the memory in some way (think back on that ridiculous speculative novel that was so popular with book reading groups about the missing aviatrix, I Am Amelia Earhart with its Blue Lagoon style sexual shenanigans). Meanwhile, the crime novel does what the boys in the quarterlies say all fiction is supposed to do: explore relationships, detail the socioeconomic strata of society, critique life.
Cain's books work in the same way. Like MacDonald in his novels Cain works her effects, so to speak, invisibly in plain sight ... just like Gretchen Lowell, her anti-heroine. It's true that like his spiritual predecessors, Hammett, Chandler, and Ross McDonald, James Ellroy has changed detective fiction for all time, "elevating" it to the realm of literary fiction, but it is good to know that the old skills as John D. MacDonald preached them are still effective.
Gretchen Lowell is the heart of the series. And hearts are her trademark. She carves their design into flesh, and apparently draws them at her crime scenes. In the first novel, Heartsick, she is already incarcerated, and Sheridan, as part of a legal deal, visits her weekly to wheedle from her the name of yet another of her proclaimed 200-plus victims, so the police can close the books. Sheridan is hypnotically drawn to her, loving and hating her at the same time, or perhaps only hating her power over him, given that he sees her weekly despite the fact that she tortured him for 10 days, removed spleen, fed him spoonfuls of cleaning fluid, and carved a heart on his chest. Sheridan is her "last victim." His obsession with Lowell is destroying his family, but also intriguing the young riot grrl reporter Susan Ward, who writes for the Herald, a barely disguised version of the Oregonian. When another serial killer emerges, the After School Killer, Sheridan investigates and finds unexpected links to Gretchen Lowell. In the second novel, Sheridan is torn between two or three fronts: a new series of discovered bodies, the death of a senator accused of having sex with his 14-year-old babysitter, and the shocking escape of Gretchen Lowell from prison. There are two bravura sequences in the second book, a race to the school that Sheridan's kids attend, and a climactic face off among Lowell, Sheridan, his partner, and Susan Ward in a cabin surrounded by a forest fire. I don't think I am spoiling anything when I note that Sheridan and Gretchen also have sex. Certainly the reader by now wants them to. Each of them has sex with each other not only for pleasure but as part of conflicting master plans. It is important to point out that the sex scenes are both "tasteful" and erotic at the same time. Most writers stumble when it comes to sex scenes, especially those humorless uptight literary fiction guys like John Updike. But your mother could read the sex scenes in Sweetheart – and probably has.
Not only are these novels set in her home town, but one gets the feeling that there are all sorts of personal elements scattered throughout them (because Portland's writing community is so small, it's inevitable that this reviewer would be acquainted with Chelsea Cain, but I don't think that hampers my ability to evaluate the books convincingly). Lowell is possibly named after Cain's Bellingham elementary school. Like Cain, Susan Ward is a journalism school grad. Susan's mother, Bliss, is a ditzy aging hippie of a type the authoress must have know well from childhood on. Life in a big city newsroom feels observed as well as felt, although it is probably a lot busier in the book than in real life.
The third novel, Evil at Heart, begins 76 days after Gretchen's escape from prison in the second novel. By now Gretchen has become a media sensation, like Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers. In some quarters she is a heroine to emulate. Meanwhile, Sheridan is voluntarily checked into the psycho ward of a local hospital, where he is recovering both physically and emotionally from his last encounter with Gretchen. The book opens with another gruesome discovery: a bloody massacre in one of the ubiquitous, uniform bathroom rest stops in Oregon's state park system, a gory aftermath that includes a small collection of eyeballs hidden in the tank of a toilet. Hearts are drawn on the ceiling, but is this the work of Gretchen Lowell?
Then bits of bodies and full corpses start appearing in various locales Gretchen used during her 10-year spree. Sheridan checks himself out of the psyche ward and investigates on his own, with Susan Ward in Nancy Drew mode tagging along. Without going into too much detail, detective and reporter soon learn that a pro-active cult has arisen around Gretchen, forming a website, meeting and plotting in chat rooms, and getting together for self-cutting sessions and more. Gretchen is off stage for most of the book, the subject of an international manhunt. But until she shows up – and you known that she will – her beautiful presence is evoked in three or four periodic flashbacks that trace Sheridan's early and late meetings with her, scenes that both round out the relationship and provide clues to the case at hand. Meanwhile, as the hunt goes on, a major character ends up in a Man Called Horse type situation, and Sheridan learns the depths of the evil at the heart of Gretchen Lowell.
It's a good read whose story invites you to read it too fast. The prose merits careful attention, for the reasons mentioned above. Still, the books get better and better. The dialogue has improved in the new one almost imperceptibly (which is praise, by the way). And the mouthy, neurotic Susan Ward is funnier in this book. She is still has the multi-colored hair, and the vaguely inappropriate garb of a working reporter – bright t-shirts shirts and lace-up knee boots. As part of preparation for a book on Lowell and the case that she is working on, Susan is collecting statistics on causes of death, which she spouts to whomever will listen when she gets nervous. She's like a walking copy of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, or a screenwriter auditioning new Rube Goldberg devices for the Final Destination series. In general, Cain inhabits the heads of the characters adroitly; no scene is told from an "objective" viewpoint. There is always someone looking at it or experiencing it, which expands the human tragedy of the events. And the book's ending punchline is worthy of Mickey Spillane; it makes you smile jsut as broadly.
There is an underlying sensibility that makes the Beauty Killer series resonate with the current culture and gives it a richness that other books of like kind lack. It's not easy to label but you could call it an S&M sensibility. Intentionally or not, Cain has created over the course of three novels the highs and lows, the anguish and ambivalence, the details and the general arc, of an S&M relationship. Or at least the fantasy of such a relationship. The reality, at least as portrayed in such movies as Going Under, is disappointing, as it perhaps almost always is to an aspiring fantasist. In any case, the relationship between Gretchen and Sheridan shares many of the components of the relations between a dominatrix and her lover-client-slave. On the surface the book is "normal" in that the nature of their alliance is buttressed by important plot points, but beneath that veneer the two characters' interactions trace a simulacrum of the sort of fantasies a sexual masochist has about a controlling, dominant woman.
Gretchen is, of course, the dominatrix in the situation. She is supremely confident in her ability to manipulate others, she is physically alluring to the point that she inspires obsession and even submission in men, she is enigmatic and impenetrable, and she takes pleasure, as Susan points out with admirable simplicity, in being mean. She tends to know what people are thinking several moves in advance, like a chess player. For example, in a confrontation between Sheridan and Gretchen in the new book, she knows what he is thinking before he does, such as when he is ruminating on the location of a gun he knows is in the vicinity. There are always surprises in her behavior, ever lower depths to her manipulation and cruelty. Gretchen is a thriller anti-heroine not the star of a pornographic novel so she goes in for mutilation, murder, and mayhem rather then bullwhipping and bondage and bootlicking, but mutatis mutandis, her behavior is on a similar continuum.
Sheridan, as the masochist, evinces the clinically and culturally recorded behavior of such obsessions. He thinks about Gretchen continually, he jeopardizes his marriage and family under the sway of the obsession, he is helpless against submitting to her control and in fact he likes it, he is turned on by her higher imperious indifference to him, at least in the early books, and in spite of his self-hatred over the matter. By the end of the third book there are suggestions that the cloud of obsession has lifted. But there is also the idea that he deserves his slavery to her imperious control; Gretchen, in the guise of a helpful counselor volunteering to help the Beauty Killer task force, takes a mere two weeks to seduce Sheridan into betraying his family to the point that he has decided to leave his wife for her. So in his mind, he deserves the torture she inflicts on him. His hunger for her pain only consolidates her power over him. Also conditioning him is his obsessive masturbating while thinking of her (he quips that he has ejaculated a bathtub of semen to the idea of her).
It is easy to see the allure of a masochistic swoon. In this state of mind, its "victim" willingly gives up control, immobilized by emotion and awe, willing to do anything for a few seconds with the love object. Masochistic love is the equivalent of a high school crush, or is it vice versa? Yet the passivity of the masochist is the trade's ugly secret, for in reality the dominatrix does all the work (and in a commercial context, at the behest of the client) for the pleasure of the masochist, even if the pleasure is a form of psychological conditioning that binds him to her more. She's performing an emotional lap dance for the passive recipient of her largesse.
Gretchen's evil spiderwebs out like cracks in an ice shelf. A major character in Evil at Heart has internalized the trauma of his experience with Gretchen into a masochistic life style of genital self-torture. In the masochistic world view, at least at its most feverish, suffering the pain is a way of getting to know the dominatrix, of honoring her, because all she wants out of you is to suffer pain at her hands. There is something exquisitely cruel and imaginative about Gretchen's secret manipulations – the "experiment" – behind the misleading surface of this story. It's moral repugnance wakes up Sheridan to the depths of her evil, but is sure to excite Gretchen's true fans. In Gretchen's world, we are all lab rats.
The new book is self-reflexive, in acknowledging an outside world where there is a fan base growing up around Gretchen, just as the literary character Gretchen has her fans in the real world, the way Hannibal Lecter has his real life admirers (I've met a few – disturbing! But also strangely exciting). Susan Ward demurs, and is shocked at a culture that would love a mass murderer and a media that would cash in on her celebrity, and the reader nods in agreement and then turns the page looking for Gretchen's next shocking act. It is part of the point of the book that there is ambivalence about these things, the book is about the ambivalence of this attitude, the allure of cruelty and its real cost.
Reluctantly, one must admit that Ms. Cain has her eccentricities or tics, though they are understandable in a writer who is striving to meet a pressing annual deadline (the first book had the luxury of a four-year gestation). For example, she is always careful to describe the art or slogans on a character's t-shirt. She calls Lake Oswego by its longtime euphemism, but as a lifetime Portland resident, I've heard it as Lake NoNegros, not Lake NoNegro, plural instead of the singular. She has a character wonder why hospitals are kept 10 degrees colder than anywhere else, but doesn't supply the answer (to curb bacteria). But these are minor quibbles and I could be wrong. In any case, if these are the only complaints one can come up with in a complicated 300-plus page book, then Chelsea Cain must be doing something right.