In Chelsea Cain's "Evil at Heart," forty-year old homicide detective Archie Sheridan has taken up residence in the Providence Medical Center psychiatric ward in Portland, Oregon. After being victimized by serial killer Gretchen Lowell and becoming addicted to pain pills, Archie signed himself in voluntarily. Because of Gretchen's hold over him, Archie wrecked his marriage and is on leave from his job. His goal is to rid himself of his twin obsessions: Vicodin and Gretchen. In spite of Lowell's cruelty, Archie admits that he craved the company of this gorgeous but deadly predator. He has progressed enough to concede that he has serious issues to work through before he can be considered "cured." Unfortunately, Gretchen is still at large and the mayhem has not yet ended. Human bodies and body parts begin to show up all over town; either Gretchen is back at work or a copycat is emulating her.
This is Cain's best work to date. Instead of playing it straight and simply grossing us out with descriptions of nauseating gore, the author injects elements of dark humor that enliven the proceedings enormously. It seems that Lowell, known popularly as the "Beauty Killer," has become something of a folk heroine. Although she has slaughtered and mutilated many men and women, her image is everywhere: She has a Wikipedia page, there are fan sites devoted to her on the Web, and people are wearing T-shirts with her face on them. Gretchen memorabilia is being sold on eBay, and there is even a "Beauty Killer Body Tour. Thirty-five bucks. Twenty crime-scene stops." How did this madwoman become an icon? Cain implies that we live in a warped society whose values have become seriously perverted. At one point, Archie says to some young Lowell groupies, "Gretchen Lowell is a psychopath. She is not some sort of antihero." He wants them to give up their adulation of this monster, but his plea falls on deaf ears.
"Evil at Heart" is a suspenseful and entertaining thriller in which Archie is forced to once again to confront his demons with the help of journalist Susan Ward and Detective Henry Sobol, Archie's close friend and colleague. They are seeking either Gretchen herself or acolytes attempting to mimic her activities. Cain's prose is witty and crisp, her dialogue is clever and often hilarious, the tidy plot is fast-paced, and the conclusion is as satisfying as can be expected, considering the unpleasant subject matter. Susan has a major role in this novel and she is a riot. With her purple hair, tendency to wisecrack, and rebellious personality, she is the poster girl for nonconformity. Even as she mocks herself for being stupid, Susan puts herself in harm's way to get material for her forthcoming book. Cain's themes are that a person can be both physically beautiful and mentally unbalanced, many individuals take a perverse pleasure in violence, and those whom we place on a pedestal are often morally bankrupt. "Evil at Heart" is highly recommended for fans who have read the first two installments in this series.