When Chelsea Cain's first thriller, Heartsick, debuted in 2007, it was a big bestseller. The story of a police detective and the female serial killer who tried to kill him won raves from the fans – but it left me cold. I thought it was too calculating and manipulative for its own good, using shocking subject matter to interest readers in a very shallow way. So it was with some hesitation that I picked up Cain's latest book, One Kick. But as a new series with a new publisher, I thought it deserved a fresh chance.
Now I'm starting to rethink my earlier decision to write off Cain's first series. One Kick is so good, I’m wondering if I wasn't too hasty in my earlier judgment. Because this writer clearly knows how to write suspense. One Kick has a knockout punch of an opening chapter – one of the best I've read in a long time – and it just keeps going from there.
Kit Lannigan was abducted as a little girl, the victim of one of those crimes that captivate the nation. Following her dramatic rescue several years later – recounted in that killer opening chapter – she became a media darling. But as the story picks up ten years later, Kit, who now calls herself Kick, just wants to be left alone.
She’s spent the years since her rescue training herself never to be a victim again. Not only has she honed her body into a weapon, with intensive training in the martial arts and hand-to-hand combat, she's also become highly skilled with firearms, knives, throwing stars, nunchucks, whatever she can get her hands on. Living off the proceeds of a financial settlement (the book never says who the other party in the lawsuit was), she spends all her time training – and obsessing over missing children.
With the help of a troubled young man she calls her brother, Kick tracks cases of missing children around the country, following Amber Alerts and news bulletins, scouring the internet for clues, covering the walls of her apartment with maps and pictures of kidnapped kids. It’s not healthy, but it’s how Kick maintains just a sliver of control over her chaotic life, the feeble grasp she has on something approaching normalcy.
When a man named Bishop shows up in the living room of Kick’s apartment – a man with seemingly no past, no identity, and endless resources – the next phase of Kick’s life is started. A boy is missing, and Bishop thinks he knows where he is. But he needs Kick’s help to rescue him. She doesn’t want any part of it – she can’t handle any part of it – but there is no way that she can refuse.
Kick is a wonderful, multi-dimensional character, a bundle of anxieties and neuroses wrapped up in a focused, lethal package. You can’t help but be fascinated by her, so troubled and complex, but also so instantly likeable. If Bishop were half as well written, their pairing would really be outstanding. As it is, though, he's a cipher; deliberately so, at least in part, but too empty and shallow to generate much interest. His interactions with Kick are good, but on his own there’s just not much to him.
Sharp though its plotting and pacing are, One Kick isn't a perfect book. It's built more for speed that finesse, and there are times when the narrative velocity gets so heated up, it risks running right off the rails. This is especially true with the third act, which races by so quickly that it doesn't even have time to build to a proper climax. The final confrontation between the heroine and the villain ends up curiously flat and so contrived it verges on parody. It's as if Cain worked so hard to make the first three-fourths of the book so gripping that she simple ran out of steam.
Even so, the conclusion of One Kick is still satisfying in its way, and it sets up the story for a sequel, which I'm already eager to read. For flat-out entertainment that grabs you from the start and only releases you when you've gone through the wringer, you're not going to find a better book this summer than this one.
This review first appeared in Strand Magazine.