At the start of Chelsea Cain’s third “Beauty Killer” novel, Evil At Heart, her hero—Portland homicide detective Archie Sheridan—is sitting in a mental institution, self-committed after promising his slaughter-happy ex-lover Gretchen Lowell that he wouldn’t kill himself if she stopped murdering folks. But then corpses start popping up around Portland again, minus key organs (Gretchen’s signature). Archie gets called back to action by his partner Henry and flippant reporter Susan Ward, who’s been researching a book about the cult of worshippers and wannabes that has spread in Gretchen’s wake. As Archie investigates the new crimes, he begins to wonder whether this latest string of murders is the work of copycats, or if maybe he was wrong to put his faith in one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
For about the first hundred pages, Evil At Heart feels a bit too much like a retread of Heartsick and Sweetheart. Cain has spent two whole novels describing Gretchen’s gruesome methods of torture and dismemberment, and exploring her strange attraction to Archie, a dedicated cop who’s thrown away his career and his family because of his erotic obsession with the woman who once kidnapped him and carved him up. Although Cain tries to widen the scope of the story by adding some commentary about our cultural obsession with villains, there isn’t much new to bring to the topic. Evil At Heart improves considerably down the stretch, as Cain emphasizes the story’s mystery elements and their ramifications. Rather than focusing on a cunning master criminal and the dogged law-enforcement agents working to bring her down, Evil At Heart becomes more about randomness and the allure of the unknown. Gretchen and her followers are like divine forces of destruction, occasionally granting an audience to those whose lives they disrupt. If Archie falls in love with his tormentor, who can blame him? Who wouldn’t want to have an intimate relationship with God?