When I stumble across an interesting title and discover it’s part of a series, I usually dismiss it out of hand. I generally adhere to a series-free diet, willing to risk missing out on the occasional pay-off in favor of avoiding unwieldy plots full of various cross references and inside jokes. I’ve always assumed such series were shameless attempts by an author to exploit what might have been a notable one-hit wonder and forcing it to be something greater, and congratulating sycophants along with the way with allusions no one would understand unless he or she had started on page one. They become something other than fiction – make-believe worlds inhabited by in-crowders less interested in compelling stories than in maintaining an alternative reality to discuss, reinterpret, and dress up to ad nauseum. I’ve never been much of a joiner, though, so please, fans of series, please don’t take what I say too seriously. Or suggest titles I should try. I’m maladjusted, and I have a list of to-reads a mile long.
There are, however, exceptions to this anti-series rule. There are those stories, characters and settings that are so engrossing, so thrilling that I find myself reading more slowly, unwilling to finish. And, once in awhile, these great stories are part of a series. When done right, these are like Law & Order in print: the conflict changes, but it always plays out in a familiar world that validates your attention by satisfying expectations, but also teases you with the promise of a well-timed twist. Such is Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell series. It’s well-paced, atmospheric, and peopled with characters you’ve admittedly met before, sure, but with enough local flavor to keep you engaged.
Which is all a long way of getting to the title at hand: Night Season, Cain’s fourth effort in the genre that forges ahead with the same investigative team from the Lowell books, without Lowell (the killer – I haven’t spoiled anything for you, these aren’t whodunnits). It isn’t billed as a Gretchen Lowell thriller; nor as an Archie Sheridan caper, the lead investigator and Gretchen’s sometime, fucked-up paramour. It seems Cain’s promoters felt like I did: it’s like Gretchen and Archie broke up, and you have to pick sides, but you’re not entirely sure which one is more important in your life as an individual as you’ve never experienced them this way, so you don’t choose. I took a chance on Archie, which doesn’t really count as choosing, in my opinion, because there are as yet no comparable Gretchen novels available. Maybe I’m just explaining myself because I wouldn’t want her to think I’d taken sides against her … she’s pretty scary.
Night Season is a quick, pulpy read, with chapter breaks timed like commercials and a television program’s pacing. Just when you start to wonder what’s happening with another subplot, Cain zooms in with a “later that same day” feel that moves things along briskly. It takes place in Portland, OR, in the middle of unseasonable rain and snow melt, and as such, the book veritably drips. Cain is great with atmosphere, lingering over the weather/buildings/sounds just enough to put you in the middle of action. There is a kid, which I usually hate, but this one was okay. That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s actually tantamount to one thumb up on the kid front.
Although she makes a nominal appearance at the end of the novel, I wouldn’t call this the fourth in the Gretchen series. It stands alone well enough, but I can’t help but hope for another title that brings Gretchen and Archie together again. I would recommend the Gretchen books (Heart Sick, Sweet Heat, and Evil at Heart) over this one if you haven’t read any Cain previously, but if, like me, you’ve torn through those, you’re bored, and you’re looking for a little moody escape, Night Season fits the bill.