Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2007 | Reviews

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

By Judy Polumbaum

A reader might assume the gory thriller Heartsick arose from an author's sick imagination — but writer Chelsea Cain says it actually originated in boredom, pregnancy, and a hankering for a favorite TV crime show (BBC America's Wire in the Blood) whose season had just ended. Additional real-life inspiration came from the Green River Killer, who murdered dozens of women in the U.S. Northwest during the 1980s.

Released in September, Heartsick briefly held position No. 8 on The New York Times' hardback fiction best-seller list. The story — set in Portland, Oregon, where Cain lives — revolves around a detective, Archie Sheridan, trying to recover his equilibrium while seeking a killer who's murdering high school girls.

He previously spent years tracking serial killer Gretchen Lowell, who finally lured him into a trap, tortured him brutally, then inexplicably spared his life and turned herself in. Archie, still crippled from Gretchen's sadistic games and addicted to painkillers, has returned from medical leave to address the new case, as Gretchen continues to transfix and manipulate him from her jail cell. Rookie newspaper reporter Susan Ward also becomes embroiled in Gretchen's shenanigans.

This is Cain's sixth book; her first, Dharma Girl, a memoir of her toddler years on a hippie commune outside Iowa City and her road trip back to Iowa for graduate study, evolved from her University of Iowa master's project in journalism.

Heartsick delivers more of the fine writing her teachers at Iowa would expect. It also explores the sort of ethical dilemmas we've always discussed in journalism classes — in particular, the seduction of careerism and the appeal of voyeurism that a reporter assigned to a gruesome crime story inevitably confronts.