Friday, November 21, 2008

Serial Killers: Kind of Silly

When reading "Heartsick" by Chelsea Cain I wonder if it's a metaphor for the way we love people who hurt us, returning to them again and again despite knowing we shouldn't. Possibly. Generally, I have no patience with people like that.

Reviewers seem to agree that it busts the serial killer genre wide open, and I'll have to take their word for it since I'm not seasoned in such things. For some reason the idea of someone who kills compulsively and repeatedly, often for pleasure, was never top of my list of things to learn more about. Like Tom Ripley, I detest murder unless it's absolutely necessary. Expediency, cover-ups, becoming King of Scotland, these are motives I understand. Killing because your dad raped you and made you drink drain cleaner? Meh. I don't know ... Psychological motivations always seem a little weak to me, perhaps because I have so much disdain for it as a field of study and as a literary device (backstory, schmackstory).

Cain relies on a few classic Agatha Christie moves to confuse the reader -- 1. give the villain an alibi so the reader will dismiss him as a possible suspect, 2. provide a parallel mystery for a smokescreen (a young girl who was raped by a senator) -- and relies on heavily psychologized characterization, flashbacks, and many, many clothing descriptions to fill the spaces (we know what the Girl Reporter wears in every scene). The action speeds along with nary a dull moment, but I didn't see anything really earth-shattering or sophisticated going on. Maybe I'm just not familiar enough with the genre, maybe she's playing with themes I can't even begin to understand. The only nudgy-winky reference I got was when Gretchen calls the Girl Reporter "Clarice" when she asks for a profile of their current killer. Silence of the Lambs, right? Got it, self-referential.

It's not a horrible waste of time by any means, but if the only twist on the genre is that the detective and serial killer are in love with each other (kind of) then I guess I'm not easily impressed. In the penulitmate sequence Gretchen asks Archie if he knows what Stockholm Syndrome is. Is this supposed to bea revelation? Why vocalize what every reader figured out in the first few pages? Other clunky sequences get my goat, like the scenes with The Girl Reporter (Susan) in jail with Gretchen. She sums Susan up in about forty seconds and Suze is immediately shattered by this magnetic woman's profound, searing assessment (daddy issues). So ... I guess I'm underwhelmed, is what I'm saying. Wait -- is the twist that she's ... pretty? No, that's not it. Hmmm ... What can't I put my finger on? What is this tweaking of the genre that I'm missing?

And for pure crazy, Gretchen can't hold a candle to this bitch:

The problem is that neither the killer nor the detective is very smart or subtle. As a New York Times review puts it, Archie Sheridan "stops if not exactly outsmarts Gretchen Lowell." And, again, I just can't get over the weak motivations. I mean, this drama teacher kills because a student broke up with him? And the mere mention of her name makes him snap and kill her young dopplegangers? We're meant to believe that Gretchen's wiles implant this idea into his head, but we never see her prowess in action, save for that one pathetic scene with Susan in the visiting room at the State Pen.

Cain's strength lies in her ability to tie all her action to the overarching theme. Power, authority, inappropriate attraction, these themes permeate the narrative throughout and help to unify all the action. And it's a fairly good story, if you can overlook some of the leaps and coincidences that help further the plot, and suspend your disbelief at Gretchen's cartoonish supervillainy. And while we obviously all love deeply flawed protagonists, there's something inherently off-putting about Susan, and something faintly impenetrable about Archie, that left me cold.

But, again, everybody else seemed to get a total boner for this book so clearly I'm in the minority. Or am I? This tepid comment failed to make it to the book-jacket: “'Heartsick' is not as elegantly conceived as its model [Silence of the Lambs] .... Hannibal’s preternatural intellect allows him to penetrate Clarice’s mind, her soul. He opens her without a scalpel; prison bars and shackles can’t protect a person from his kind of plundering. Gretchen, shattering ribs and force-feeding Archie drain cleaner until he vomits blood, is comparably clumsy in her approach."

All I can say is that there was one detail that bothered me intensely throughout the book, a detailthat would make me question a witness' testimony were they giving it to me: in the opening chapters, Cain describes Susan as wearing her hear short, in a flapper-esque bob. And then goes on to describe her repeatedly as tying her hair back, putting it in pigtails, ponytails and what have you. Perhaps if she hadn't emphasized the flapperness of it, and the 1920s aspect to her face, I would have overlooked it (you can tie a long bob back into a stubby ponytail after all). But a "flapper" bob is generally no more than chin length at the front, and simply can't be tied back. That's just silly. In fact, this might be a metaphor for how I feel about this whole book. Heartsick isn't devastating or clever or thrilling or fascinating or sickening. It's just kind of ...silly.

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