Mysteries not for the faint-hearted

Chelsea Cain’s mysteries are not for the weak of heart, and that’s not just a play on the “heart” element of most of their titles: “Heartsick,” “Sweetheart” and “Evil at Heart.” Cain’s tales of a Portland, Oregon cop and the love of his life — a beautiful female serial killer — are often filled with grisly, bloody moments.

At one point in the books, serial killer Gretchen Lowell takes police detective Archie Sheridan captive and, besides carving a heart in his chest, removes his spleen, for pete’s sake.

But gore isn’t the point of Cain’s books. And it’s an afterthought in her latest Archie Sheridan book, “The Night Season.”

Although Gretchen Lowell — nicknamed “The Beauty Killer” not because she is beautiful but because of the gruesome nature of her killing style — is a presence in this book (don’t worry, I won’t spoil how), Cain’s latest novel is really about Sheridan and the core of supporting characters the author has built up around him.

There’s Susan Ward, a newspaper reporter trying to survive the upheaval in her industry as well as encounters with homicidal maniacs; Henry Sobol, Archie’s partner on the force and a rock in his life; and a cast of characters that, four books into the series, feels as familiar and beloved as any in fiction right now.

Sheridan is an enormously flawed man. His infatuation with Lowell in the earlier books cost him his marriage and nearly his life. Far more realistically than might be expected for a thriller series, the books emphasize the toll that Sheridan’s bad decisions and his noble intentions have taken on him.

But readers who, in the past, might have thought Sheridan was a little too close to the edge might be happy to know that in the latest book, the only edge he’s in danger of stepping over is the banks of the swollen Willamette River.

Torrential rains have flooded the river and threaten Portland, and Susan Ward finds herself pursuing a new story: The discovery of a skeleton that might be left over from 1940s flooding that wiped out a small section of the city.

Meanwhile, Sheridan and Sobol and crew realize they’re dealing with more than a series of accidental drownings due to floodwaters. They are, in fact, dealing with a serial killer, one whose weapon of choice might seem over the top but is nonetheless pretty cool.

While Susan and Archie pursue their investigations, they’re thrown together and endangered — like the rest of the city of Portland — by the ever-rising floodwaters.

I’m glad I wasn’t reading “The Night Season” during our own winter thaw/spring rains. Cain vividly portrays the unrelenting rain, the tumultuous river and the dangerous nature of floodwaters. It made me want to check my crawlspace for rising water.


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