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Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland

Chelsea Cain stands outside Portland's Arlington Club, a members-only hangout featured in her forthcoming novel, <em>Sweetheart.</em>
Ketzel Levine/NPR
Chelsea Cain stands outside Portland's Arlington Club, a members-only hangout featured in her forthcoming novel, Sweetheart.

This much I know: Crime writer Chelsea Cain likes being noticed, even on this empty beach along the Columbia River. The silk scarf, loose around her neck, trails her like Dior perfume (Poison, of course). Her dark glasses and Chanel "Vamp" lipstick are startling as the wind whips her unnaturally-honeyed hair.

"I started walking here with my mom," she tells me. "I actually came to Portland [Oregon] when my mom was dying of cancer. That's how I moved here. So right away, I had a mixed relationship with the city".

"Mixed" is one way to spin Cain's relationship with this idyllic beach.

"I often keep my eyes open for bodies," she tells me with a fat smile. "I do. Ever since I was a kid. I think I read too many Nancy Drew books ... And the converse of that is to think, well, 'Where is a good place to dump a body?'"

She points to a mound of sand just a few yards away from us. I know where this is heading. I've read Cain's book, Heartsick:

Why has Chelsea Cain conjured a corpse on Portland's pastoral Sauvie Island, 10 miles west and a twilight zone away from urban woe?

"People come to Portland," Cain explains, "many of them for the quality of life. They love the physical space here. And yet every year, people climbing the mountain get killed by avalanches."

Cain goes on to list a few more heinous ways to die in the wild, adding, "So there's a really interesting tension in the fact that there's this incredibly beautiful environment all around us that picks people off, one by one."

It's a little unnerving being alone with Chelsea Cain with no one else in sight, so I'm relieved when we leave the beach and head back to the leafy boulevards of downtown Portland. We sneak into the dining room of the Arlington Club, a downtown members-only club for Portland's movers and shakers. The club is said to figure largely in Cain's sequel, Sweetheart, due out this fall.

"The detective, at one point, and the journalist come and stay here," Cain says. "There's a serial killer on the loose, and they're in danger, so they put them in the Arlington for safekeeping".

Thinking we'd better walk out before getting thrown out for trespassing, I make my apologies and we head to Forest Park, Portland's densely wooded refuge, which factors significantly — and darkly — into Cain's forthcoming novel:

We meet Cain's friend, writer Suzy Vitelli, a woman who — it's clear — shares Cain's vision of the darkness lurking just below the surface of this polite city.

"The books that are set in Portland aren't generally in this genre," says Vitelli. "And so it's sort of breaking new ground. And I think it's helping to broaden people's idea of what's here ... I'm sure there are bodies just waiting to be dug up."

"There are at least five bodies in the park right now," agrees Cain.

Oh please, I'm thinking to myself. Bodies? What's with these two?

But Chelsea Cain won't relent. She dares me to come back to the park with her alone, tonight, with one condition: She will hold the flashlight.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

BooksMorning Edition
Ketzel Levine
NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine reports for Morning Edition.