Although serial killers are as common as dirt in fiction, most of the bloodthirsty ghouls are male. This, I suppose, is backed up by statistics: there are more Teds, Dennises, John Waynes, Davids, and Jeffreys out there than there are Aileens, The fatal femme is fairly rare in crime fiction, too; but one fictional murderess stands out like a distaff Hannibal Lecter. Meet delectable but decidedly deadly Gretchen Lowell, the Beauty Killer (and I do mean beauty), on the occasion of her return in Chelsea Cain's Sweetheart.Turquoise hair and all, Portland reporter Susan Ward has an investigative report that could bust all of Oregon wide open – it's just that her editor wants to sit on it. As Susan fretfully awaits the go-ahead on her little bombshell, her path once again crosses that of Archie Sheridan. The occasion, once again, is the body of a murdered young woman. One can almost imagine one of the two muttering, "We've got to stop meeting like this..."
When Susan's fellow reporter drives his car off a bridge with the subject of her giant exposé in the passenger seat, she's forced to turn to the next best thing: a trio of unidentified bodies in Portland's Forest Park, At least it'll keep her close to Archie Sheridan.
You see, Susan's got it bad for Archie Sheridan; so does Sheridan's ex-wife Debbie, who's trying to reassemble their fractured family. Archie, however, is carrying a torch for Gretchen Lowell. It's a MagLite of a torch; well-nigh indestructible. Nothing seems able to extinguish Archie's obsession with Gretchen: not the life sentence she's serving, not her triple-digit list of victims; not the weeks she held him hostage and tortured him two years ago. Yeah, Archie's got it bad... and that ain't good.
Gretchen Lowell is a woman as deadly as she is beautiful, a one-woman killing machine whose beauty could make Charlize Theron look like she's still wearing that Aileen Wournos makeup job. She can manipulate any man and darned near any woman; get almost anyone to do whatever she wants. Oregonians should thank God she's behind bars... at least for now.
The second installment in Chelsea Cain's "Heart" series once again features the literary world's most toxic relationship - Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell, each eternally torn over whether to kiss or kill the other. Wannabe edgy but mainly goofy Portland reporter Susan Ward also repeats in Sweetheart, reprising the role she played in Heartsick. Ward's role is central to both tales, though more in the sense of a donut hole than of a leading lady. The leading lady of this series will always be Gretchen Lowell.
Cultured, educated, and undeniably intelligent, Cain's villainess is often compared to Hannibal Lecter. She's deadlier than Dr. Lecter, though, and apparently doesn't share his dietary habits. Cain has deliberately withheld Lowell's back-story; dribbling out only the barest hints about her history in Sweetheart – even her real name and age remain a mystery. Readers can look to future installments in the series to flesh out the character, I suppose; and it's a character that needs some fleshing out.
Sweetheart shares much with Heartsick, including a fast pace and graphic violence, though it is far less graphic than the descriptions of Archie's torture in the first novel (Cain does remind readers of some of Gretchen's ministrations). There's also a little semi-explicit sex. When all is said and done, however, what Sweetheart really does is demonstrate author Cain's seemingly desperate need to give her readers a little jolt every few pages. Perhaps it's Susan's mother Bliss doing her morning yoga in the nude and the loving description of that tattoo; maybe it's Susan's turquoise hair (which used to be pink) or her telling off her editor by telling him that he's... not that well hung after all. The regular shocks, unfortunately, don't make up for the weakness of the characters and for the predictability of the plot. Most of all, they don't make up for Cain's kludge-like attempt to weld together two plots; Ward's scoop and the Lowell plotline.
If your tastes run to badly damaged protagonists and drop-dead gorgeous sociopaths, Sweetheart might be right up your alley. For anyone else, however, there's no reason to go out of the way to pick it up.