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Onyx reviews: Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain

It was inevitable that the relationship between serial killer Gretchen Lowell and detective Archie Sheridan would draw comparisons to the perverse rapport between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. It might even have been deliberate.

However, Chelsea Cain takes what seemed to be simply twisted and mildly derivative in her fast-paced debut novel Heartbreak and turns it into something all her own.

Gretchen is the classic sociopath, the kind of person mostly found in crime novels and movies. She is beautiful, resourceful, intelligent, crafty—and absolutely without any trace of connection to the human race. She killed for years, racking up hundreds of victims. She didn't care who she killed, and often seduced men into doing her dirty work for her. She tortured her victims for days or weeks before executing them.

Archie Sheridan was a rookie when he was assigned to a murder case that turned out to be the first one attributed to Gretchen. He spent years working on the task force organized to track her down and almost ended up becoming her final victim. He bears scars from her scalpel, he's light one spleen, and suffers chronic pain from her torture, which included force-feeding him drain cleaner. He pops vicodin at a rate that makes Dr. House look like a recreational user.

Painkillers aren't his only addiction—he has an obsessive relationship with his torturer. Until recently, he made weekly trips to the prison to visit Gretchen, getting her to admit to numerous open murder cases one at a time. She's Scheherazade, stringing him along, prolonging the pain she inflicted. Archie's marriage cratered—though he's still sleeping on his ex-wife's couch. He's not going to the prison any more, but he's still a mess.

Then along comes another serial killer case—three bodies found in a Portland park. One of them is fresh, the other two date back a couple of years. All three are unidentified, and there's not much interest in investigating the crimes because the victims are likely prostitutes and drug users. When a well-loved U.S. Senator dies in a car accident, the murders are quickly bumped from the front page of the newspapers, too.

As is the story Susan Ward was working on—the one that would have destroyed Senator Castle's reputation and career. There is a lot of political pressure on her editors to quash the story, but Susan had the goods on the Senator—testimony from the woman who was fourteen when he slept with her a decade ago. However, her source has fallen quiet and the outpouring of grief at Castle's demise make the timing poor for an exposť. Susan, who followed Archie Sheridan on his previous murder investigation, is determined that the truth should be told, especially when her mentor, Quentin Parker, is blamed for the car accident that killed him and Castle.

Sweetheart is a brilliantly woven tapestry of seemingly unrelated plots that merge together in surprising ways. Readers learn much more about Archie's relationship with Gretchen, who had insinuated herself into the task force as a psychological consultant.

Gretchen can't stand being ignored, so she manipulates Archie into visiting her again and then orchestrates an escape from her maximum-security prison cell that requires the tacit collaboration of several of her guards. Gretchen sets her sights on Archie, planning to get at him through his family and friends.

It's hard to conceive of a person who is simultaneously as ruthless and as seductive as she is, but it's easy to suspend disbelief in a book filled with colorful characters, like Susan and her hippie mother, and non-stop action that includes a political cover-up and a Pacific forest fire.

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