Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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An Interview With Chelsea Cain
Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain Chelsea Cain


Woke up it was a Chelsea morning....I met Chelsea Cain in a Soho hotel, which sounds more like Leonard Cohen than Joni Mitchell. Despite having such a perfect name for the writer of fiction about a serial killer, she's clean-scrubbed American, bright-eyed despite the jetlag accumulated on her way from Portland, Oregon, and the perfect antidote to all those questions she must get about writing such gruesome stuff ('No, I don't skin my daughter's friends alive, dear.').

I had approached Cain's first two novels the way any cop in his right mind might approach 'The Beauty Killer' Gretchen Lowell, with a certain caution. Serial killers are as thick on the ground as serial parking violators in crime fiction these days, and HEARTSICK draws rather openly on some of the standard cliches of the genre, particularly from Thomas Harris: the cop who caught the killer called out of retirement, the serial killer incarcerated but still a major character, and even the killer controlling his pursuer. But as I read I found myself drawn in by the narrative drive, the humour, and the way in which Cain builds suspense by using overlapping story lines, and lots of conflicts between the characters. Her newsroom is as much a viper pit as the prison where Gretchen is kept. And Archie Sheridan, the cop whom Gretchen tortured and then saved, is one of the great conflicted heroes of our time. So much more depth than Clarice being spoon-fed brains. SWEET HEART uses his dilemma in a really creative way.

So I began by asking Chelsea if she worried about treading in familiar (burial) ground?

CC: Well, it's a new take. I stopped trying to re-invent the wheel, I indulge rather than avoid the archetypes of the genre. I think it's OK. It shows I love these themes and characters.

MC: What I do think is new is the combination of humour, sometimes but not always black, with the extremely graphic business of killing

Well, my proudest moment was the scene where she pulls out someone's intestines with a crocheting hook. I can't believe I'm saying that! But I hated crocheting!

In the second book, the character of Susan, the journalist, becomes more central, and she provides much of the humour.

It helps break the tension, gives it punctuation and moments to breathe. You can't be flippant about a serial killer. The challenge is to make her likable-well, some people don't like her at all-but to make her more likable, so I made her less flippant and gave her a crazy mom.

And if I did my homework right, you were a journalist and your mother was a hippie?

Yes, I was the hippie kid, ostracised, but I got my revenge, because Lowell, the name of my serial killer, was the name of my elementary school.

And Gretchen is the ultimate school bully?

The ultimate high school mean girl.

What I like about Susan is the way she thinks she smarter than she is, and the way she catches herself being manipulative without realising she's being manipulated too.

Susan is my way into the story. I didn't have experience of serial killers, but I know about being a journalist, and it helps to get some reality into the story. You need the background details to be convincing, not necessarily realistic but convincing, if you're going to go over the top otherwise. Everyone's manipulative in the story, everyone's got their own agenda.

There's a moment where Susan is dressing for an interview and she thinks 'something more intellectual. A sweater maybe.' which I found hilarious.

I thought it would play much funnier, but sometimes it gets lost in the killing. But I needed her psychology to be a clue-her vainness, immaturity, arrested development, whatever. She's a wisecracker...

Sort of like the classic hardboiled detective...

Yes, but her flaws have to be clues for Archie, and the After School Strangler has to be at least 10% as interesting to him as Gretchen is.

Do you see yourself as part of a continuum of female writers in the forensic branch, the Patricia Cornwell style of physical detail as much as psychological?

Continuum implies an end! People do begin to become numbed to detail, so the ante is up high, it's become a pop culture thing, and to get to feel you must kick it up a notch. My writing is particularly violent, but the thought is not to shock, although the opportunity is there. Actually, the closest I get to 'literary' is when I describe the corpse on the beach, all sombre grays.

Did you follow the Ian Rankin/Val McDermid controversy about bloodthirsty women writers?

Oh yeah, it was good friendly publicity! But I am surprised at how often reporters want me to justify the violence in my books, much moreso than if I were a man. Then again, I've had women come up to me at readings and say 'I think Gretchen's inspiring'.

Like a self-help book for Oprah's Book Club?

Well, I hope not! She' is a powerful counter to that archetype of the female awed by the male character.

You also seem very much aware of the marketing here. Attractive woman author, bloody serial killers. There's a moment in HEARTSICK where Susan thinks 'If beauty sold books, then beautiful serial killers made best-seller lists'. I laughed.

I'm fine with that! You know, I started out writing for fun, then I thought OK I'll publish under a pseudonym, then OK I'll publish it, and now this is what I want to do with the rest of my life!

There's another continuum here, the one where serial killers become heroes, like Lecter or Dexter.

The power of Hannibal Lecter is that you root for him...

YOU root for him, maybe...

...because he's enigmatic, charismatic. In my third book the theme is exploring the celebrity of violence. Serial killers have literally hundreds of fan sites. I wanted to explore culturally how that happens, how killers become heroes, and make the readers confront conflicting emotions.

You do see Lecter as a hero?

You keep skipping to the sections of the book where he is. He's the most interesting character. I mean, I write as an excuse to pursue characters, their relationships, especially the one between Archie and Gretchen. Everything else is just words.

You don't get to meet Gretchen until about two-thirds of the way through HEARTSICK, and you do drive yourself toward it.

While I was writing to that scene I worried maybe it was too deep into the book, but I found it easy to justify that. The Monster is only scary for a minute, I got that message on a post-it note from a friend, and I had to find a new way of maximising that scariness. I knew I needed to put three in the room, Susan in there to observe, and she doesn't want her to know she's scaring her.

Gretchen's not necessarily the most interesting character, though she does respond to the spotlight. And of course she takes Susan apart and good as solves the crime with one look at her...

Any good scene is about the tiny exchanges of power, and like I said before, everyone's got their own agenda.

And Archie has three women trying to manipulate him. Is he a sort of a homme fatale?

Maybe he is. Archie is a man who discovers he's not the man he thought he was, and Susan discovers she's better than she thought she was. Crossing arcs.

He's almost like one of those film noir bozos, especially in SWEETHEART, where he believes he's a doomed lover. Gretchen's femme is literally fatale.

Archie is a character defined by the women in his life, as a character and as a narrative device. There is a tension, with Gretchen, not knowing when each is fucking with the other. But since the female role was traditionally passive, on the surface, the tension is increased. Basically, at heart, these are love stories, just really twisted ones.

SWEETHEART is published by Macmillan £12.99 hbk July 2008

Also by the author Heartsick



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