Before reading Cain’s latest, start at the beginning

Chelsea Cainís Heartsick is a 2007 debut novel and the first in a quintet of books that must be read sequentially. It is about Portland, Ore., detective Archie Sheridan and his nemesis, Gretchen Lowell Ė certainly the savviest, most evil and seductive villainess in crime fiction history.

You will have long forgotten the luminous Lisbeth Salandar in Stieg Larssenís Millennium Trilogy before you forget a scintilla of Gretchen Lowell.

Cainís latest book in the Gretchen Lowell series is Kill You Twice, which was released in August. If you read Heartsick, you will read all of Cainís thrillers Ė youíll steal them if you have to Ė but you must read Heartsick first.

Itís macabre. Itís mesmerizing. Itís brilliant. Nobody Iíve ever read can do heinous and make you like it as can Cain. Her five books have sold an excess of 1 million in the U.S. alone, and every Cain mystery has made The New York Times best-seller list.

Lowell is a figurine beauty: Blonde, chiseled, slinky Ė a femme fatale. She insinuates herself into Portlandís police serious crimes unit headed by veteran detective Archie Sheridan, fruitlessly investigating a deviant serial killer with a team of detectives for the last 10 years.

Gretchen is clueful in addition to being seductive. Her bright green eyes, her poise and stunning beauty, and that sensual touch of naivetť force compliance with her polished natural charm. She lies unquestioned: an academic psychologist, having just finished a book, thought she might help profile the psychopath ... just wants to help ... has followed the case and arch-detective Archie Sheridan with keen interest.

Archie has been haunted by his teamís failure to find a shred of evidence in pursuit for nearly half his career of what will soon come to be known as the Beauty Killer. He is desperate for a clue. A fetching psychologist in-between books and professorships, why not? Gretchen is on the team, working closely with Archie Ė soon closer than a mouse in the claws of a playful feline.

Women donít usually play this role, donít usually kill for pleasure, donít usually torture with glee, but Gretchen is like no woman you have ever met in dreams or fiction. And she is lovable.

Cain skillfully juxtaposes present and past events to concoct police procedure with evil pure enough to outsmart it, beginning on page 1 with a flashback to Archieís bizarre entrapment and impassioned torture. Flash ahead to Archieís return to work after two years of convalescing, still shaken and damaged from his 10-day ordeal with Gretchen, popping pain pills and amphetamines and leading his team of detectives in yet another serial killer investigation with eerie similarities.

Archie visits Gretchen every Sunday in the state prison for the criminally insane, compelled, in theory, because at every visit she gives up the location of another of her victims. But we know that Archie is obsessed with his torturer, dreams about her, desires her, is willing to again be her captive.

Heartsick includes carefully drawn and charismatic supporting characters who keep in motion components of a brilliantly fashioned intrigue. It is a smart book not for dozy readers.

Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author. Reach him through JeffMannix.com.

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