Beauty kills

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“I love Portland. All the characters in my book love Portland. Even the serial killers love Portland,” said author Chelsea Cain at a recent reading.

The reading took place at Powell’s, a fitting location for an author whose love of the Rose City has been apparent in all her work, including her latest novel Sweetheart, which hit shelves earlier this month.

Cain seems like a warm, friendly and humorous person in the cozy, nostalgic columns that she writes for the Oregonian about her toddler daughter. It was during pregnancy that Cain abandoned writing parodies and memoirs in favor of dark, twisted serial-killer novels. After attending a class on childbearing, Cain realized that there was something violent and bloody about pregnancy and referenced that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein while pregnant.

In Cain’s first thriller, Heartsick, she introduces her classic hero detective, femme fatale and reporter Archie Sheridan.

In Cain’s fictional world, Sheridan spends 10 years tracking down the Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell.

Then, she lures him into her trap and tortures him for 10 days until he begs her to slit his throat. Instead, she dials 911. Gretchen goes to prison and Archie goes to the hospital. Archie then returns from a two-year medical leave to hunt another serial killer. Shadowing him is the plucky Oregon Herald reporter Susan Ward, which Cain admits was her way into the book.

All three characters return in Sweetheart but the stakes have been raised. Archie begins to pursue a serial killer who’s dumping his female victims in Forest Park, the same place where he found Gretchen Lowell’s first victim.

Susan is doing her own detective work looking into the mysterious deaths of a comrade and a politician vital to her feature article that are seemingly unconnected to Archie’s investigations. Adding to the chaos, Gretchen escapes from prison. Now Archie and Susan are thrown into perilous danger.

Cain’s novels are at the top of the literary food pyramid as dark, delicious desserts. Her writing style improves from Heartsick to Sweetheart. She seems to know the characters more intimately and is more comfortable with the ongoing storylines.

She also abandons Heartsick ‘s heavy-handed Portland trivia, which should already be familiar to any of the city’s residents. This allows the Portland reader to enjoy the familiar landmarks in Sweetheart without feeling like they just picked up a tourist guide.

Although the books are sometimes predictable, Cain keeps the reader gripped with her intricate, macabre descriptions and fast-paced action. Especially in Sweetheart, there’s never a dull moment. Cain also has imaginative ideas that she explores with attentive detail. She checks police procedures and online blogs to maintain her accuracy. When she wanted to know whether birds collect hair from a corpse’s scalp for their nests, Cain emailed the Audubon Society of Portland.

Archie, Gretchen and Susan will appear in at least one more novel. Cain has signed a three-book contract with her publisher but hopes to write this series indefinitely.

She has also signed a contract to make Heartsick into a movie. A screenwriter was recently attached to the project, so anticipate seeing Cain’s heinous version of Portland on the big screen within the next few years.

For the moment though, you’ll have to content yourself with Cain’s books, which gleefully supplant the macabre into some very familiar environs.

Chelsea Cain will be talking to fans at the Lake Oswego Library Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.

Sweetheart$24.95****

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