Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain
Rating: 5/5 stars
#52Challenge prompt: a mystery novel
Chelsea Cain’s Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell novels are perfectly dark and twisty. Evil at Heart (#3) is no exception to this rule. In fact, this book may be the grossest and most over-the-top yet. Which is truly saying something.
This series follows Archie, an FBI detective who specializes in catching serial killers, and Gretchen, the first serial killer Archie caught. Spoilers: book three sees Gretchen on-the-run, having escaped prison in the previous novel, but still with her promise to Archie not to kill anyone.
Evil at Heart literally starts at a rest area on Oregon’s I-84 highway — pretty sure I’ve peed there — featuring a toilet clogged with a spleen (a Gretchen favorite), eight human eyeballs, and hearts drawn on the walls (usually Gretchen carves hearts in her victims’ chests). I was glad I hadn’t eaten anything. Cain didn’t spare any details. Honestly, the general uncleanliness of highway rest stops got to me more than the body parts.
As in previous books, the points-of-view move largely from Archie to intrepid crime reporter Susan. Hank, Archie’s partner, gets a little attention too. I always wonder as we get further into Archie’s and Gretchen’s histories if Cain will ever write from Gretchen’s point-of-view. She certainly doesn’t balk at adding horror to her books.
While we get bits about Archie’s recovery — both his stabilizing health and mental health with addiction recovery — Evil at Heart is a critique of our culture’s fascination with criminals, particularly serial killers.
Who’s spent hours reading up on the Green River Killer? Oh, was that just me. And who went to a college where the rumor was that Dahmer buried a victim under a fountain? Again, me, and they dug up the fountain for renovations and found nothing.
Most serial killers are white men, and being a woman — and a very Western beauty stereotypically attractive woman — makes Gretchen a subject of fascination. She becomes a celebrity. People even stan for Gretchen, either cheering for her continued evasion of law enforcement or outright believing her to be falsely accused.
Even our Lois Lane gets told by her editor Ian that she must write stories about Gretchen because they sell more newspapers. Sales equal ad revenue. Ian even threatens Susan with the idea of lay offs due to low sales without Gretchen. Susan does want to write about the pop culture impact, and it’s this line of investigation that leads Susan to a spleen-less dead body and her and Archie to a Gretchen cult.
(As aside, Evil at Heart continues to show Susan drawing the short straw. She figures out most of the mystery and saves Archie. But she gets a stab to the cheek — temporary and non-consensual piercing — and loses out to basic white guy on a promotion to head crime reporter. But, with the exception of still living with her mom after the trauma of the last novel, Susan has her life together more than we’ve ever seen it before.)
We see the worshipers of Gretchen sacrifice themselves and kill others in her name. Gretchen has always taken fragile men, convinced them she loved them, and used them to assist in her kills, until she was done with them.
But this is the first time a whole cult forms around her, and a cult build on Gretchen’s reputation as a celebrity in the media, instead of direct contact with the victims. Except in one vital instance: the cult leader Jeremy. Turns out, Jeremy is the only other Gretchen victim besides Archie to ever get away.
Jeremy is a rich kid — whose father is a heroin importing kingpin — who’s had ever advantage in getting help for his trauma. Jeremy’s story is that that he and his sister were held for several days by Gretchen as he watched Gretchen torture and eventually murder her. Gretchen then abandoned the car, Jeremy, and his dead sister’s body. Jeremy claimed not to remember anything.
It was pretty clear early on that Jeremy is the serial killer. He attempts to clone Gretchen’s killings by staging them at the same places as her other crimes. These crimes, of course, get noticed right away as you can now take Gretchen’s killing site tours throughout Portland. Jeremy has a couple followers he’s made out of street kids. Archie knows right away the murders are not Gretchen’s work as she doesn’t repeat herself and her dumping sites.
Archie tries to rescue Jeremy. Even though Jeremy kidnaps and tortures him. Until the very end, Archie believes he and Jeremy to be the same in their Gretchen obsession. Why did Gretchen let them both get away?
But Archie eventually unravels Jeremy’s story. Not before there’s some bdsm-style play piercings and suspension with body modification (aka hooks in your skin) and Jeremy wacking off in front of Archie. Except for Jeremy’s self-hooking, Archie is a non-consenting victim in his suspension.
Eventually, the pieces come together in a way that make it clear Jeremy killed his sister and he’s trying to attract Gretchen’s attention. Which is dangerous as we know Gretchen always watches Archie (which is a B plot).
Archie himself watches the cultural celebrity around Gretchen, Jeremy’s addiction to her, and finally admits some hard truths to himself. Obviously, we know Archie let himself be blindsided by Gretchen in her fake role as a profiler and ultimately was kidnapped by her. We know he’s attracted to her, and spends a lot of time getting a boner about her or trying to stop that boner. And in the last book, when he lets himself be kidnapped again and is suicidal, they have sex. Even though he knows she’s a serial killer.
But what this book puts in the forefront is that Archie had an affair with Gretchen — before he knew she was serial killer — and fell in love with her. In fact, he was going to leave Debbie for her. (Poor Debbie, I’m so happy her and Archie aren’t together.) Archie had deep love for Gretchen that wasn’t just Stockholm Syndrome or his death wishes.
In the end, Archie’s tested by Gretchen to see if he still loves her. He doesn’t. And her no-kiling promise has ended as she delivers Archie Jeremy’s eyeballs. One may have gotten eaten by Hank’s cats as Cain doesn’t play around, and my cats would totally snack on an eyeball.
Evil at Heart certainly continues this dark and twisty pattern of Archie’s and Gretchen’s. I’m looking forward to reading more of them, though can do without anymore public highway restroom scenes.