EVIL AT HEART by Chelsea Cain

Heartsick and Sweetheart reeled me in with the twisted love-connection between detective Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. The mysterious hold they have on each other creates a devout fascination for the reader. Evil at Heart threatened my devotion.

The first half of the book made me second-guess my enthusiasm for the first two books in the series. Each time I sat down to read I needed a moment to refresh my memory—and it’s not because I may be a woman of a certain age, but because there were no lasting impressions from what I read previously. When a book fully captures my imagination, even if life forces me to take a hiatus, when I return I’ve never needed to stop and wonder about location or turn the pages backward to find out what happened last. But I repeatedly needed to perform such actions within the first 164 pages of Evil at Heart.

Initially, I was ready to take full blame. Maybe this book’s page-turner aspect was so strong, I was reading too fast for comprehension. So, I slowed down. Nothing changed.

Then I realized my lack of interest was due to the switch in the series focus. The meat of Heartsick and Sweetheart is the Archie/Gretchen relationship. But this duo is subplot in book three. The main action revolves around the murders linked to the Gretchen Lowell fan club, or copycat killers. Once we are in the thick of that investigation the book takes off, however, as I said, this doesn’t happen until the halfway mark.

As a struggling writer, I wondered about this choice. Why did Cain wait so long to get into the action? Is it because she wanted to keep us hooked? Risky business when the result is a lukewarm first half. Did she not go for the big guns at the top because she was afraid there wouldn’t be any ammunition for the rear? Or did she choose to explore this serial killer-fan club tangent in order to recharge her own creative battery for the long haul of the series?

These interesting questions kept me reading. Hmmm. And in the end, I realized these questions don’t need answers because Cain kept me glued in other ways.

With Gretchen and Archie in the backseat, Cain had time to zero in on Susan Ward, the reporter linked to The Beauty Killer Investigations. Susan was my least favorite character in book one and two, but I guess three times is a charm. She is a hopelessly human character, who like a lot of us, is wishing to be so much more. From her quirky way of dealing with tense situations by spewing out trivial facts on causes of death, to her honesty regarding bad choice in men…

“Susan felt a ball of disappointment in her stomach. It was stupid. So he’d had sex with a hot stripper with implants. She had other things to worry about besides another inappropriate crush. She had to focus on finding Archie.”

We have no choice but to root for her success.

The other way Cain keeps us reeled in, is in the way she serves up Gretchen and Archie’s past. This installment provides less background than the other two books, but the way Cain selects the material we do consume proves she is as manipulative as Gretchen Lowell and worthy of our loyalty.

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