Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My World Is A Flood

I'm a sucker for damaged characters.  The kind of characters that if they were real people, that existed in real life, you'd wonder how they were managing to still be walking around.  Genre fiction succeeds, for me at any rate, when I'm allowed to crawl around inside the character's head.  Sometimes it's an OK place to be, and sometimes I wonder what my local neighborhood psychoanalyst would say about me - getting sucked into some, if not most, of the suspense novels I seem to enjoy.

The Night Season by Chelsea Cain is the fourth entry in a series that quickly became somewhat of an obsession for me.  I also think, as mesmerizing as her first three books were, that this latest succeeds on a certain level that the previous three did not.  In short?  This baby has crossover appeal stamped all over it.

Serial killer Gretchen Lowell is behind bars, and Detective Archie Sheridan is back to work.  Right now that means dealing with the bodies that are washing up all over Portland, Oregon.  The rains have come, and the Willamette River is rising.  People get stupid around water, so the first three bodies were chalked up to accidental drownings.  It's when a fourth body turns up at a local amusement park (perched on the carousel!) that the medical examiner discovers all four victims have identical puncture wounds.  These people were dead before they hit the water.

Meanwhile, plucky girl reporter Susan Ward has written a story on an old skeleton that turned up along the river.  She thinks it's linked to Vanport, an entire town that was wiped out by a flood in 1948.  Of course uncovering that story is, at the moment, a bit difficult.  Nobody seems all that interested in identifying "Ralph" (as she's taken to calling the remains) when there are four fresh bodies, the rising flood waters, and a psycho going around poisoning people with some mysterious toxin.

One thing I think Cain does exceedingly well with her books is that she's an expert at writing "urgency."  There is nothing more depressing (or more boring), in my opinion, than a slow as mud suspense novel.  Traditional mysteries are one thing - something promising the reader thrills and chills another entirely.  The flood angle to the plot certainly feeds into the urgency of this story, and churns up the pace to feverish in many spots. 

What I especially liked about this story is that Cain seems to be propelling her characters forward.  Writing a series is hard, and where many writers stumble (I think) is that their characters either stagnate, or they morph into pod people because the author gets bored.  Archie is still eff'ed up, but he seems less seriously eff'ed up than he was in the previous books.  He's moving on....slowly.  Susan is still plucky and persistent, but she's having fewer too-stupid-to-live moments as the series progresses (thank you sweet baby Jesus).

I say this could be Cain's Crossover Book because she downshifts to a lower gear this go around.  The first three books got progressively darker, and more graphic, as time marched on.  I have an extremely high tolerance to gory bits in the genre, but even I had to set Evil At Heart down at times and just....walk away for a few minutes.  On a gore level?  Well, there really isn't any in The Night Season.  Oh sure, you have a bad guy.  And oh sure, you have dead bodies.  But there's less blood and guts floating around.  Also, as much as I adore the Gretchen Lowell character, the author has to be careful with her.  You keep trotting a serial killer out over and over again, pretty soon it strains so badly that the reader is screaming, "Oh c'mon now!  Really?!?!" This book is 98% devoid of Gretchen's presence.  In previous books even when she wasn't "on page," her presence was hanging over the story like a black cloud.  Here?  Well, she's just not here.  And you know what?  That's OK.

In some respects I think first time readers can almost start with this book, although that said - they shouldn't expect a lot of nitty-gritty character development.  Hey, it's a series - and Cain's methodology so far seems to be peeling her characters back like layers of an onion.  Newcomers will get a good suspense story here, and they'll find the people interesting - but they also shouldn't expect a dissertation on them.

As for me, while the suspense thread can be construed as a little....well....out there, Cain keeps it lively, interesting, and bizarre enough to keep me flipping the pages.  The first time I read this story I positively tore through it.  The second time I read it I was just as interested, and heck I knew where the story was headed.  I enjoy suspense novels that leave me with that breathless feeling.  An anticipation that starts in the pit of my stomach and slowly works it's way up to my throat as I turn each page.  Cain continues to deliver that feeling for me with each subsequent book in this series.  Now....when's the next one?

Final Grade = B+

10 comments:

Amy said...

Wendy, you know I've only got love for ya. But right now I hate you. I must have this book!

KB/KT Grant said...

I love this series. Archie and Gretchen are two of the most deranged characters I ever read. And I want more from them!

Victoria Janssen said...

Ooh, sounds interesting. *off to download a sample*

Karenmc said...

Again I'm reminded that I live in Stumptown and I've yet to read one of Chelsea Cain's books (I chalk it up to inner ear problems from all the rain). Book One has been in my TBR pile for about two years, so I think I'd better move it up the chain or I'll be so far behind I'll never catch up.

I used to read Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone books, until I evolved and Kinsey didn't. Good to know that with this series, Ms. Cain allows her characters to grow.

Wendy said...

Amy: Well, laydown date was today. Your library should have it on order, although it might not be on the shelf yet....

KB: It's pretty light in the Gretchen department, but that was fine by me. I think Cain can only trot her character out so often before we get into "jumping the shark" territory....

Victoria: I highly endorse the first book in the series - Heartsick. There are gory bits, but something tells me that won't bother you....

Karenmc: Well, assuming you like her style and story, I predict that once you read book one that you'll tear through the next three :) Also, I'd be curious how the setting holds up in her books. I think it reads great - but then I know NOTHING about Portland.....

Karenmc said...

Wendy, just from the reviews I've read, it sounds like she portrays Portland accurately. The flooding on the Willamette certainly has happened (in the late 90’s the mayor had to ask for people to go the seawall downtown and put up plywood along the railing to keep the water out - hundreds showed up).

"Portlandia" on the IFC channel does a very funny job of taking the essence of Portland and twisting it.

I'm reading Julie Anne Long’s "What I Did for a Duke" now, but I'll get to "Heartsick" right after that.

KB/KT Grant said...

Her books remind me of a cross between the old NBC show, The Profiler and CSI

francespergamo said...

Thanks for sharing.I'm so glad you highlighted this series. I will have to check it out!

Frances Pergamo said...

Thanks for sharing.I'm so glad you highlighted this series. I will have to check it out!

Wendy said...

KB: I used to love The Profiler! But then they caught Jack, Ally Walker left the show, and it jumped the shark big time for me. Sigh.

Frances: You're welcome!

Karen: I just saw a promo for Portlandia the other day while channel surfing! Will need to check it out.