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Onyx reviews: Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain

It says a lot about a character when her presence is felt on virtually every page of a novel, especially when she barely shows up in person. In this third "heart" novel, Gretchen Lowell appears to have fallen off the wagon again, returning to her old, murderous ways, despite her promise to former lover and nemesis, Detective Archie Sheridan.

Archie's not doing so well these days, two months after Gretchen escaped from custody and immediately set her sights on Archie again. He's managed to kick his painkiller habit, but his other habit still has him in its grasp. He has checked himself into a psych ward, claiming that he's a danger to himself when, in fact, his fear is that he is a danger to those around him. Gretchen is the jealous type, and she has a particularly lethal way of dealing with any romantic rivals.

However, the main character in Evil at Heart is really the media, as personified by Portland Herald reporter (journalist?) Susan Ward, the colorful young woman with the multicolored hair who worked with Archie on his previous escapades. Her stories about the Beauty Killer (including How to Make a Gretchen Lowell Halloween Costume) have helped further her career with the newspaper. She's not the only one writing about Gretchen, though. The killer's face moves copies, so she frequently appears on the covers of magazines and on the front pages of financially strapped newspapers. There's even a Gretchen Lowell tour in Portland, people are selling Gretchen T-shirts, and web sites are built in tribute to her. Now that she's an escaped fugitive, she has a growing legion of fans who hope that she'll never be caught, despite the heinous crimes she's perpetrated. Some people even think she might be innocent, despite the fact that she has confessed to dozens of murders—far fewer than the number that she's actually committed.

Susan is a much more interesting and colorful character than Archie. The detective's actions are sometimes difficult to fathom. Falling in love with Gretchen was, perhaps, understandable given the circumstances of the way they first met, but his ongoing obsession with her isn't as easy to credit, nor are his actions in this novel when he is the captive of a disturbed young man.

Susan, on the other hand, seems to see the world exactly as it is. She's a wealth of information, especially about the myriad ways people die. She wants to write about the media and public's attraction to Gretchen Lowell, and no one is more fascinated by the killer than Archie, so she covets his input—but he's been keeping a very low profile.

Of course there are more killings—the necessary catalyst to get Archie out of his funk and free from the "looney bin"—but the bodies are being left in places associated with Gretchen's earlier crimes, and she's not someone known for repeating herself. So the question becomes: Is Gretchen killing again, or are these murders being committed by a copycat, someone enthralled by the Gretchen Lowell phenomenon? Perphaps by a group of Gretchen Lowell fanatics who may have crossed the line between adulation and emulation.

The novel is a fine entry in the series, neither weaker nor significantly stronger than the previous two books. There's a lot to be said for consistency, and Cain has found an interesting way in this book to revisit old ground but to tackle it from a fresh perspective. The novel also has an interesting, ambiguous ending, as the question of who actually committed a particular crime is never resolved, and the implications of that uncertainty cast one of Archie's decisions in a dubious light.

It's difficult to guess where Cain will go next, given the way the book ends, but there is probably more fertile ground for her to explore when she next decides to revisit Archie, Gretchen, Henry and Susan in deadly Portland.

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