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Onyx reviews: The Night Season by Chelsea Cain

The first hint that Chelsea Cain's arch-villainess Gretchen Lowell isn't the focus of her fourth novel comes from the book's title. It's the first one that doesn't have the word "heart" in it. In fact the book's title doesn't make a great deal of sense, but that's neither here nor there. 

Though Gretchen is safely locked up in prison after her shenanigans in the previous books, Archie Sheridan is still very aware of her impact. He's missing an organ or two, and his body is a mess of scars due to her ministrations, including a prominent heart inscribed on his chest. He's managed to kick his Vicodin addiction, though, so he's clearer headed than before, and he's in therapy.

The Night Season takes place during a veritable monsoon. It has been raining for over two weeks in Portland, the Willamette River is rising to the edge of its banks and the dikes are beginning to fail. Several people have been swept away by the raging torrent, but the latest body thought to be a drowning victim turns out to have been murdered. (The first clue that it wasn't a natural death is that her body was found in an obviously posed position in an amusement park.) The corpse bears a strange puncture mark on its hand, and some backtracking reveals that this isn't the first with the same wound. Poison is suspected, though the delivery mechanism and the nature of the toxin defy easy explanation.

This isn't the first time flood waters threatened to inundate the area. Sixty years ago, Vanport, a federal housing project located just north of Portland, was completely destroyed (this part of the story is based on fact). Some people believe that many more people were killed than the fifteen or twenty reported deaths, and the fact covered up. There's also a mystery surrounding the failure of town officials to sound the flood alert earlier. Journalist Susan Ward, who gets much more "screen time" than in earlier books, writes a quirky crime column for the Oregon Herald. She believes that a recently discovered skeleton belongs to one of Vanport's unreported victims and is researching that disaster. She shadows Archie as he follows leads and slogs through the inundated city.

Cain makes excellent use of the rain and the floodwaters. Readers will feel drenched by the constant downpour, and several exciting scenes transpire when people are swept away by the raging currents or leap into them to attempt rescues. In one thrilling scene, Archie risks his life to save a young boy from the river, a rescue complicated by Archie's weakened condition. It turns out that the boy had been kidnapped over a year earlier. Before he can be reunited with his parents, though, the boy vanishes from the hospital.

Cain ties these disparate details together and threatens some of her main characters to heighten the tension. Archie's long-time friend and partner, Henry Sobol, is attacked by the killer and left for dead, and Susan discovers one of the killer's calling cards in her purse, which means that he has been close to her. The omnipresent rain creates such a distracting curtain of sound and sensory input that people often miss things happening around them.

The killer's method is strange and farfetched. Though his reasons for resorting to such a bizarre delivery mechanism for the toxin are explained, it still stretches credibility. It isn't entirely original, either, as the same thing appeared in one of the later Sherlock Holmes short stories nearly a century ago, though in that case the suspected murder was revealed to be an accident. Also, the staging of the first body turns out to be something of a red herring—or perhaps a plotting convenience to set this death apart from the other recent drownings.

Worse, though, the killer's identity is revealed more through happenstance than detection. His name ends up on a list of people who purchased equipment necessary to support production of the poison and characters stumble upon ("blunder into," one might be tempted to say) his lair as part of the routine investigation. There is a connection to the Vanport mystery, but it's tenuous at best. Cain does deliver an interesting twist on the killer's motivation, but the resolution of this series of crimes isn't terribly satisfying at the end of the rainy day. The encroaching Willamette is a much more fascinating and potentially lethal character.

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